Biking for shekels

In the past, when Ilana Gauss received fund-raising pitches from friends doing a marathon or bike ride to raise money for charity, she thought they were a bit crazy.

Her bicycle sat rusting on her San Francisco balcony for two years. She went to the gym maybe once a month, if she was lucky. And biking accoutrements such as toe clips and Spandex clothing were simply not part of her world.

But that’s all changed since Gauss got pumped up over the chance to see Israel from the vantage point of a bicycle seat.

Now the 29-year-old is at the gym at least three times a week, and she, too, is pitching to raise funds — for the Israel Ride ( sponsored by Hazon, a New York-based Jewish environmental organization.

“Training for the ride has started taking over my life,” she said. “I got toe clips and my first Spandex outfit.”

Gauss will join two other riders from the Bay Area — Batshir Torchio of San Francisco and Stephen Blatteis of San Mateo — and 119 from around the world (though most of them are from North America) on the May 9-16 tour of Israel.

Participants have a choice of two routes from Jerusalem to Eilat, one 254 miles, the other 326. Gauss opted for the shorter route.

By biking half the length of the country, riders have a chance to see both how big and how small it is at the same time.

“When you bike half the country, you learn how many different ecosystems exist close together,” said Rebecca Guber, director of the Israel Ride. “In the U.S., you have to bike for days to see a real difference in ecosystem and climate.”

As in all such events, riders must raise a certain amount in order to participate — in this case, the minimum is $3,600. Over half of that will go toward Hazon and the Arava Institute, which brings together Jews, Christians and Muslims from Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories and throughout the world to focus on how to cooperate on regional environmental issues such as water and sustainability.

Even seasoned athletes must seriously train for a ride like this.

Torchio, who is fairly athletic and a teacher at Brandeis Hillel Day School, found that the first time she attended a spinning class for training, when it was over “I fell in a puddle on the floor, weeping.”

She has been told that long-distance rides, however, are less grueling. Meanwhile, she has been biking to school — a 45-minute ride — weather permitting, and going further distances on the weekends.

Blatteis, too, has been logging serious miles on weekends when possible.

The Bay Area has had a steady presence at the ride since 2003, when Deborah Gasiorek and Howard Metzenberg, both of San Francisco, participated. In 2004, Susan Jaffe of Concord and Sarah Liron of Orinda rode, and last year Aaron Frank of Albany and Danny Ronen of Oakland participated, with Rena Shachar of Berkeley riding as a crew member.

“You really get close to the land,” Jaffe said after the ride.

The environmental aspect was key for Gauss, who’s been active in the Jewish environmental movement for the past six years, and this year was on the slate for the Green Zionist Alliance in the World Zionist Congress elections.

What’s more, she works as a green programs specialist with the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

Though this will be her eighth trip to Israel, “I’ve never before done a sporting event like this, so it’s a huge personal challenge to me to train for the ride,” she said.

“I’m doing it primarily for my personal enrichment, but it’s also to learn” — with riders learning about a variety of environmental issues along the way.

The combination of physical sport and environmentalism appealed to Torchio as well. “I love to be outdoors, and I’m committed to Israel,” she said. “This is a way to be really connected to the land. A key Jewish practice is protecting the environment.”

She was an avid long-distance runner until an injury had her contemplating what other sport she could pick up. A doctor recommended cycling, and she’s been doing that ever since.

Torchio, 43, is married and has two children, ages 11 and 17 — both of whom are sponsoring her ride. Every year she goes to Israel in some volunteer capacity, so when she heard about the ride, it appealed to her immediately.

The Judaic studies teacher at Brandeis Hillel Day School is drawing up a lesson plan so her students can follow her progress through territory discussed in the Bible. And the school community has thrown its support behind her. Once she got the word out about the ride, “parents jumped into action,” she said, “organizing a bake sale for Arava and me, making posters on my behalf.”

Her fellow congregants at Congregation B’nai Emunah in San Francisco are also helping to raise funds.

“This year we have three teachers who will be making presentations and keeping the kids at their schools updated on where they are,” Guber said from New York. “This makes us really happy and excited because teachers are role models for their kids, and having them see this ride as something they want to share with their communities is a big part of it for us as well.”

Blatteis, a teacher at Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City, said he feels as if he’s taking his school community with him.

A seasoned athlete, he wanted to “put some of my athletic ability to good use,” and set his sights high for fund-raising. He hoped to raise at least $7,000, but did even better — raising almost $8,000 so far. Blatteis has raised more money for the cause than all but one other rider.

He claims it was fairly easy, having the entire school behind him. About $6,000 has come from the school community — students, their parents, faculty and staff, and various fund-raisers.

“Part of our vision at Wornick is to bring Israel into our hearts and minds and keep it in our sights,” said Blatteis. “So this is consistent. Plus, my principal wanted to do the ride also, but couldn’t quite pull it off. But he is completely behind me on this.”

Mervyn Danker, Wornick’s head of school, said he’d seriously considered joining Blatteis for the ride but couldn’t. “It was just a time issue. It takes time to prepare for it.”

However, Danker said, “We’re proud and delighted that he’s undertaken this.”

He said Blatteis’ participation will serve as a learning experience for the entire school. Since Israeli time is 10 hours ahead of the West Coast, Blatteis will have finished his day, and can call in and talk to the students in the morning about where he rode and what he saw. Wornick plans to follow his route on a map of Israel, and “we’ll keep a log with the entire school,” said Danker.

“All the kids in the school will be involved. This will be a learning exercise for us, and an ultra-marathon for him. He will also talk to our kids when he comes back. He’ll be excited and be the greatest ambassador in terms of Israel.”

Bikers will get a chance to meet alumni and students of the Arava Institute, which is located on Kibbutz Ketura, as some students participate in the ride and some alumna serve on the ground crew helping riders at the end of the day.

This proves to be a novel experience for many of the riders, said Guber, because “even most Jews who consider themselves on the left don’t have the chance to sit at dinner and eat with a Palestinian.”

The riders take a day of rest on Shabbat, when services are held.

“We’re creating what we see as a model for the Jewish community,” said Guber, “a model that is multigenerational, multidenominational, and where non-Jews feel comfortable too. We actually create a welcoming, inclusive Jewish experience that you can do with your dad.”

In fact several bar and bat mitzvah students will be participating along with a parent, and chose the ride as their project, asking for donations in lieu of gifts, said Guber.

In a way, even those not on the ride can participate.

Like Blatteis’ student Rachel Byrd, whose parents had agreed to pay her to do helpful things around the house and, after two months, said they’d triple what she had earned. That sum came to $180, all of which she donated to Blatteis.

So if Blatteis — who is tackling the longer of the two routes — finds himself having a bit of trouble, he can draw inspiration from Byrd and all the others following him back home.

“Sometimes you need to know that people are in your corner,” he said. “They’ll be behind me, so I’ll get through this. It sounds corny, but it’s true.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."