Jewish pedalers cross the U.S. to toot horn for environment

CHICAGO — As Americans are glued to television shows like "Survivor," in which strangers are thrown together to contend with artificially imposed challenges, a far more idealistic group of strangers has been quietly surviving real challenges as they pedal across the country.

Unlike the "Survivor" crew, the participants in the first-ever Cross-USA Jewish Environmental Bike Ride aren't fretting over rat-eating: After all, rats aren't kosher and most of the cyclists are vegetarians.

Wearing bright yellow biking jerseys emblazoned with groovy 1970s purple lettering, this small band of American and British Jews — ranging in age from 20 to 40-something — has been, since early June, slowly making its way from Seattle to Washington, D.C.

The tan and muscular riders are accompanied by an old van cluttered to capacity with camping gear and bike equipment. But wedged among the other supplies are a few tattered prayer books, velvet bags containing prayer shawls and two large boxes stuffed with tomes on Judaism and environmentalism.

The 10 riders (plus two who joined for a few weeks) have stopped at traditional biking destinations like Yellowstone National Park, but they have also visited a kosher slaughterhouse in Iowa and led Shabbat morning services in a South Dakota town that is home to five Jewish families.

During the course of two months, the bikers have pedaled through the rural Northwest, national parks, affluent suburbs, the gleaming skyline of Chicago and the heavy industry of western Indiana.

The trip is the brainchild of Nigel Savage, a London native in his 30s who several years ago gave up a banking career to study at a yeshiva in Jerusalem. More recently, he became what he calls an "environmental ba'al teshuva," using the term for Jews who become more religiously observant to describe his newfound passion for protecting the earth.

Last year, Savage moved to New York and founded Hazon, Hebrew for "vision," an organization he describes as a "venture capital house" for innovative Jewish projects. The first such project is the bike trip. It was created partially to raise money, with each cyclist soliciting $3,600 — a dollar for each mile — in pledges for Jewish environmental groups.

Mostly, the ride aims to raise awareness among the cyclists themselves, and of course, the many people they meet along the way.

"One of the chords we've really struck is that at some level American Jews are underchallenged," said Savage from his cell phone while stopped in rural Indiana.

In organized Jewish life, "If you're not a professional or wealthy, there isn't a lot for you to do," he said. In contrast, said Savage, the trip has energized hundreds of volunteers who hosted the team and helped arrange local appearances.

The cyclists are religiously diverse, ranging from staunchly secular to fervently Orthodox. None are veteran bikers.

"Most of us were very out of shape when we got here," said Ilan Glazer, who lost 30 pounds two-thirds of the way through the trip.

A Hollywood casting executive could easily reduce the group to stock characters.

Savage, an eccentric and highly energetic sort who seems to thrive on leading group meetings and rides a recumbent bicycle rather than a standard one because it's more comfortable for his "tushy."

Then there's Jo Sassienie, Savage's British girlfriend, who complains fondly about her partner's — that's the term the couple uses — penchant for hosting endless guests at their Manhattan apartment. Sassienie bickers with him affectionately when they get lost on the road.

Daniel Morris is the group's Don Juan, adding females to his e-mail address book at every stop.

Elly Oberstein and Cecily Marbach, both in their early 20s and raised modern Orthodox, are the quiet ones, who read poetry to each other at night before retreating to their respective sleeping bags.

Glazer is an undergraduate at the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary and — at 20 — the group's baby.

Dan Furmansky, a 26-year-old freelance writer and nutrition zealot, soured on his Conservative upbringing when, as a college student, he realized he was gay.

Tova Saul — who works as a tour guide and is passionate about environmental issues — wears a long skirt even when biking. A former social worker, the American-born Saul became deeply religious almost two decades ago when she moved to Israel.

Janice Simsohn is the 20-something intern coordinating the trip logistics and Nicole Schuller, a 25-year-old who just completed a master's degree in Jewish communal service, had been planning a cross-country drive until she found out about the trip.

Differing levels of religious observance has fueled tensions at times and defeated some riders' hopes that the group could all pray together or even share blessings before meals. But just as big a culprit in conflicts are more mundane issues, like the group's general inability to start its days on schedule and the challenge of fitting belongings into the van.

"Packing the van almost broke us as a community," Glazer said.

Nonetheless, the cyclists were still enthusiastic by the time they reached Chicago, speaking highly of the group, the learning and the exhilaration of meeting a physical challenge.

"We're like a little mishpoche," said Furmansky, using the Yiddish word for family.

"Most of us have all these head-strong ideas about how things should be run, but somehow we all end up liking each other," said Saul.

Drawing on Jewish texts that call for people to respect the earth as God's creation, the riders are united in their belief that environmentalism needs to play a more central role in Jewish life.

Environmentalism, said Glazer, "brings people together and shows that despite all our differences we can be a religious community."

Saul dreams of using the knowledge and contacts from the trip to lead environmental-themed tours, ones that connect Orthodox Jews to nature and animals, as well as wilderness retreats that will connect assimilated Jews to Judaism.

The trip is part-yeshiva, part-Outward Bound. The cyclists take turns leading discussions on the Jewish and environmental books on board while they're camping or over Shabbat.

"Reading the books is part of your job, it's a priority that's just as important as cooking dinner or packing the van," said Marbach.

In major cities, cyclists have spoken at synagogues and coordinated programming — such as environmental fairs and community "fun rides" — with local Jews.

But as a first-year effort that is not part of any mainstream Jewish organization, the publicity hasn't always caught up with them. In Chicago, the largest city the group visited, events were sparsely attended.

Nonetheless, the cyclists have had a powerful effect on the Jewish and non-Jewish individuals they encountered.

In Aberdeen, S.D., the cyclists helped form a minyan, enabling the local congregation to hold Saturday morning services for the first time in years.

When Morris e-mailed guards at the Gary, Ind., airport to thank them for sheltering the group for several hours during a dramatic thunderstorm, he got a reply within hours: "I should be thanking you and the others. Not enough people nowadays do things to help their fellow man."

Janet Tatz, of Helena, Mont. — 85 miles from the nearest synagogue — hosted the cyclists at a potluck dinner and Torah discussion attended by members of the city's tiny Jewish community, as well as interested non-Jews.

"The Hazon riders send me e-mail, and I send it out to the people who were here, so it's kind of this expanding community," said Tatz, adding that their visit was "a shot in the arm of Judaism."

The group is scheduled to arrive at its Washington destination this week.

Jewish bike tour at a glance