Pieter and Debra Bogaards cycling through the Negev Desert (Photo/Blaine Land)
Pieter and Debra Bogaards cycling through the Negev Desert (Photo/Blaine Land)

Discovering a deep connection to the land of Israel — from my bicycle seat

“Six Days of Cycling in Israel with FIDF” from Eilat to Jerusalem came across my Facebook feed. While I had never heard of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, an organization that supports well-being and educational program for IDF soldiers and veterans, I knew immediately that for my 60th birthday celebration, this would be an amazing athletic challenge and way to return to Israel.

While I grew up as a conservative Jew in L.A., lived on a kibbutz at age 16, and visited Israel again at 23 for a brief romance, I hadn’t been back in 37 years. This trip would be the perfect opportunity — a sort of Backroads in Israel.

Training in West Marin, my husband Pieter and I intentionally rode during 100-degree heat waves. We climbed Mt. Tam, out to Stinson Beach and up Marshall Wall. Then, we had the bike shop pack our bikes and we were off on our October adventure. We were looking forward to plenty of steep inclines and descents through some of Israel’s most dramatic landscapes.

Each day, we took a bus to a military base or to a starting point for the day’s ride. There’s a reason people here refer to Israel as HaAretz (the land) — their history and daily existence are wrapped up in the geography. Surrounded by unfriendly neighbors, Israel is still constantly protecting its border.

Experiencing Israel from the seat of a bike is a great way to see its beauty. And, after riding past one ancient archaeological site after another, you begin to sense your own deep connection to the land.

Pieter and Debra Bogaards at David Ben-Gurion’s tomb in Israel's Negev Desert, Oct. 2017 (Photo/Alan Wolf)
Pieter and Debra Bogaards at David Ben-Gurion’s tomb in Israel’s Negev Desert, Oct. 2017 (Photo/Alan Wolf)

Visiting an IDF base on the Gaza border with 30 other American cyclists was eye-opening. We met the young women who work 24/7 to monitor the cameras watching the border, and the young paratroopers who patrol the fence, sitting cramped in an armored vehicle for 12 hours at a time. These young men included a Lone Soldier — one who serves with no immediate family in Israel — from Pennsylvania, and an Ethiopian soldier whose parents had abandoned him. I became overwhelmed with emotions, tears rolling down my cheeks, after meeting these sweet, beautiful soldiers, who, at only 18 or 19 years old, could have been my own children.

The riding exceeded my expectations. The temperature in the Negev hit 101 degrees, but we had plenty of rest stops, and we devoured luscious dates and nuts and downed tons of water.

Several wounded veterans rode alongside us. One of them, Adi Deutsch, had stepped on a landmine and lost his right leg during his service. After FIDF provided him with several athletic prosthetics and training in competitive sports, Adi competed in Paralympic, triathlon and Iron Man events.

“Suddenly, I was able to participate in sports I never thought about before … it changed my life,” he told me. We were also joined by several soldiers in their 20s who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Of course, Adi and the other veterans rode way ahead of me, with the fast group of riders. It’s both inspiring and daunting to be riding with people like Adi, who seem to dismiss the great sacrifices they made by claiming “we were just doing our duty.”

a group of men on bicycles
Adi Deutsch (far right), seen here on a cycling trip in the US, rides with the help of a prosthetic leg made specifically for cycling. (Photo/Scott Lasky)

During the climb to Jerusalem, we also rode with two wounded IDF veterans, Ronen and Avi. Ronen’s amputation was too far up his leg for prosthetics, so he pedaled with one leg. It was awe-inspiring to watch him ascend the mountain to Jerusalem ahead of both Adi and pro-cyclist Roy Goldstein.

Avi explained to me how he lost his arm in the 1973 war. He was captured on the Suez Canal by the Egyptians and held prisoner of war for six weeks, enduring beatings and torture. By providing Avi with training and an iron arm, FIDF changed him — in his words — from a “cripple” to a “normal person.”

He even showed me how he shifted gears using only his left hand. Then, after this interesting and candid exchange, Avi glided ahead of me on the climb. What a way to enter Jerusalem!

The tour was all about bonding — with each other, with the wounded soldiers who rode alongside us, and with the soldiers we met at each of the military bases along the way. And, unlike random cyclists I meet on Backroads trips, many of the riders, American and Israeli, will be friends for life as we share a mutual love for Israel.

Raising $7,000 in lieu of birthday gifts felt like a meaningful way to celebrate my 60th. In the end, we rode some 350 miles and climbed 22,000 feet. After cycling with FIDF, I am even more committed to Israel — and hope to encourage more friends, especially women, from the Bay Area to join me on next year’s ride.

Debra Bogaards
Debra Bogaards

Debra Bogaards of Bogaards Law is a personal injury attorney with a focus on cycling in San Francisco and a proud supporter of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF).