Sunday, November 15, 2009

The 2009 Israel Ride - Reflections and Regrets

The ride has been over for a few days now, I'm back home in the US, unpacked and mostly over the jet lag, and almost done uploading photos and videos. A few final reflections and, yes, a regret, as I think back on my fourth Israel Ride:
  • The "bookends" to my ride this year, beginning and end, were spent with Adam and Michelle in Tel Aviv. I'd love for Adam, and each of my kids, to "end up" close to home, but if they can't be close to home, it is really special to see them so "at home" in Israel!
  • It was wonderful to have Adam and Michelle join me as fellow Israel Riders for the first day of the ride -- what a treat, not only to share the excitement of the day with them, but also to see them, as a couple, navigate the challenges of the day and, each in their own way, make sure that both of them biked the full route. Not to mention my joy, back in Tel Aviv, to hear them still talking about what a great experience it was. I'm a lucky Dad.
  • The JNF truly is the "caretaker of the Land of Israel". Their presence was everywhere we went -- in land & water restoration projects (including the Hula Valley), parks and recreations area, nature preserves, re-foresting the land, plans for the sustainable development of the Negev, and support for an expanding network of road and mountain bike trails throughout Israel, just to name a few examples.
  • The Israel Ride is more than just a ride, it is about building a community around the environment, the exciting work of the Arava Institute, and Hazon, and helping to lay the groundwork for a better future for everyone in the middle east, and it is truly uplifting to meet the students and alumni of the Arava Institute, from both Israel and her neighbors, and see the strong bonds and love that they have developed with each other. By their actions, they demonstrate the good things that the future may hold. And, the riders are a great group of people -- what a privilege it was to have this week to share with them and to become friends with them. I hope to see many of them again.
  • But, everything else aside, the Israel Ride is also about the ride. All the words, photos, and videos combined can't begin to capture the sheer joy and excitement of being in Israel, on a bike, riding through the land that we love. If you're reading this, and able, I hope that you will do the ride yourself someday. You won't regret it!
  • I do the ride in memory of my stepfather, Rabbi Morris Gordon, and in honor of his lifelong love for Israel, his passion for Judaism, and his commitment to the JNF. While in Israel for this year's ride, I got to visit with Morris' daughter, Arlene, her husband, Ami, his grandson, Guy, Guy's wife, Inbar, and their three children, Morris' great-grandchildren, and, of course, my son, Morris' step grandson, Adam. Morris can be at rest, comfortable that his legacy, our future, is in good hands.
And, finally, a regret -- on the morning after the 2008 Israel Ride we were treated to one of those amazing Israeli hotel breakfast buffet's. One choice on the buffet was chocolate cheesecake. I held back, only to find myself craving chocolate cheesecake for the past 12 months! When I signed up for the 2009 ride, I even put it on my calendar -- Tuesday, November 10, Chocolate Cheesecake in Eilat. My regret? There was no chocolate cheesecake this year, only blueberry. Maybe next year....

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Eilat, the Red Sea, and me!

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In the footsteps of Moses....a Mt. Sinai night

Today, Tuesday, was a chance to visit Mount Sinai. I was there once before, in 1981. That year, for a sunrise hike to the peak of the mountain. This time, for sunset.

In 1981, the eastern portion of the Sinai peninsula was still under Israeli control. Today, as Israel agreed under the Camp David accords, it is part of Egypt. The differences speak volumes -- once pristine beaches are now mostly the domain of unfinished and seemingly abandoned construction projects. Signs of poverty abound. And, while we just finished traveling freely for 300+ miles of cycling in Israel, the 220 mile drive from the border to the base of Mount Sinai included 4 - 5 military check points. The poverty in this part of Egypt is a marked, and sad, contrast to modern Israel.

Mount Sinai and St. Katherine's monastery were our destination, and theyare largely unchanged from my 1981 visit, and the terrain of the Sinai desert is as beautiful and striking as ever.

The hike to the summit took about 2 1/2 hours, including a climb up, I'm told, 3,700 stone steps (Moses had to go w/o the steps) to an elevation of 2,300 meters, close the the highest elevation in Egypt. If you've been to Masada, think of this as the snake path on steroids. Unlike Masada, the cable car is not a choice. On the other hand, some of the hikers do rent a camel for the bulk of the journey. We hiked. It was worth the reward.

We arrived in time to explore the peak, including a small chapel, The Church of the Holy Trinity, and a small Mosque. I've since read that the mosque is built over the cave where Moses is said to have spent his time on Mount Sinai and to have received the Torah. And, we were there to see the sun, setting over the horizon of the mountains to the west of Sinai.

The most special part of the day, however, was the hike back down the mountain, under the night sky. For the last mile or so of the hike, with the worst of the descent behind us, we were finally enveloped by the night sky over Mount Sinai. It was a quiet time, and a chance to think about the experience of the past week, starting in Tzfat, the home of the Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism, and ending here at Sinai, where we received the Torah. What a wonderful journey it's been! For the last portion of this day, we turned off the flashlights, leaving only the quiet magnificence of the night sky over the desert. Special as this Israel Ride has been, I know that many of the memories will eventually blend into those of other Israel Rides that I've been lucky enough ride in. One memory that I won't forget is the beauty of this Sinai night.

Blown Away! (Day 4 of the Israel Ride)

Day four of the Israel Ride, from Mitzpe Ramon to Kibbutz Ketura, is always one of my favorite days of the ride. Three days are behind us, so we are very comfortable on the bike, we've just enjoyed a relaxing Shabbat break at Mitzpe Ramon, we've met that many more of the riders, and, in a word, the route is amazing -- this year was no exception!

The day started with the descent into Machtesh Ramon (new video to follow). This year, having spent part of our Shabbat break hiking in the Machtesh, I road in with a new appreciation for the depth of the descent, and the beauty of the Machtesh. And, the ride down, around the switchbacks, and then into a straightaway at the end, was as much fun as ever!

There is also something, at least for me, that is truly special about riding a bike in the desert, in Israel, and today is the day that feeling comes home.

From a rider's perspective, however, the highlight of this day was completely unexpected. The hardest part of the route is typically towards the middle -- we've descended into the Machtesh (a geological formation that is visually similar to a crater, but created in a very different manner), then another descent into a deep wadi, then a steep climb out of the valley. Part of the strength for the climb typically comes from a constant drumbeat (literally) or drums and song that the crew of the ride is playing from the top of the mountain -- if your legs can't push you up the climb, the drumbeat will pull you up!

Today, however, the big surprise came in the last 18 miles of the ride, as we were leaving a retreat where we had stopped for lunch. The next 10 - 12 miles is a relatively flat plateau. This day, however, we found ourselves riding directly into a wind storm, including head winds of probably 25+ miles per hour. It was a bit like riding uphill on a flat road (with an occasional burst of sand to boot!). For me, part of the Israel Ride is very social, as we are often in decent sized groups and have plenty of time and energy to get to know the other riders, part is the pleasure of quiet time that we each find at various places along the route, and part is the real physical challenge that some of the ride poses. For me, this year, the deepest of those challenges was on this long, flat road, with a howling wind, and no riders visible in front or behind me. The safety van was ever available, and even drove by to check on me during the storm, but the true excitement was arriving, on my own power, at the final rest stop of the day!

The cycling portion of the rest of the day went quickly. We treated ourselves to delicious, organic ice cream at the rest stop (really delicious!), and then rode the final six miles to Kibbutz Ketura. The final three miles were a steep descent into the Arava Valley, ending the day w/the same kind of exhilarating descent as we started with, about 60 miles earlier, at Mitzpe Ramon.

Of course, not all of the highlights of the Israel Ride are on a bike. Though I've visited Kibbutz Ketura before, I've never really explored the Kibbutz. This year, I was able to explore it with a long after dinner walk, under the night sky, all along the Kibbutz perimeter. A peaceful, perfect way to end a very full, challenging, and exciting, day of riding.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

No doubt about it, we are in the desert now!
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We're in the Desert Now! (day 3 of the Israel Ride)

We awoke to Day 3 in a very different setting then the Mediterranean Sea, where we ended Day 2. To allow this year's ride to cover both the north and the south of Israel, we were bussed last night from Ceaserea to Kibbutz Mashabim, in the Negev Desert. Today, we began our ride through the desert.

Today's route was the shortest of the ride, allowing us to take time out for 10 miles of mountain biking in the valley behind Sde Boker, the Kibbutz where David Ben Gurion is buried, and still make the roughly 30 mile climb (mostly) to Mitzpeh Ramon. The route was as beautiful as the hills were long!

Some special moments along the route:

1. I'm still really enjoying the granny gear. For my next Israel Ride, I'd like to be 20 lbs lighter. If I don't make that, however, it is great to know that the granny will be there for me!

2. The mountain bike ride from Sde Boker is amazing, everyone should do it at least once! About 4.5 miles into the desert, we came to a natural desert spring where many of the riders took a swimming break in the 6 meter deep pool of (i'm told) ice cold, fresh water -- wonderfully refreshing as the temps in the valley felt like they were in the 90's, at least. It was hot!

3. It is day 3, we are getting to know each other better. This is one of the reasons why it is so much fun to do the Israel Ride, again and again. In addition to the route, which is fantastic, and the riding, there are the people. The riders are from all (okay, most) walks of life, whose common bond is that they care about Israel. What a wonderful foundation to start new friendships from! Having done the ride before, it is now a special reunion with old friends, and a chance to make new ones.

Connections -- one thing we learn here is how small the world is! Yesterday, while riding towards the coast, we passed another biker heading the other way. He turned around, chased us down, and suddenly was in conversation with one of our Israel Riders, who came from Australia (a 30 hour flight) to do the ride. Turns out that they were relatives who had not seen each decades. Closer to home, one of the younger riders that I've met on this trip is Oren Hirsch - I'd never met Oren before this week, but I got an e-mail the day before the trip from my elementary school classmate, Danny Hirsch, telling me that he just realized that I would be doing the ride with Oren, Danny's son! Turns out that Oren had also learned about the connection just before the ride, when he was talking one of his classmates in Jerusalem, and she told him that I'd be on the ride. How did she make the connection -- she is my Rabbi's daughter. And then there was the young rider that I met at lunch one day, only to learn that he was, coincidentally, good friends with the daughter of a friend that I made on an earlier Israel Ride. The list, and the connections, go on. It's a small world.
The Mediteranean, taken from Cesarea, at the end of the second day of the Israel Ride! (just before we went swimming)
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Adam and Michelle at the entrance to Kibbutz Maggan, the end of the first day of the Israel Ride. They were great!

From Sea to Sea!

Day Two of the Israel ride took us from sea (the Kinneret) to sea (the Mediterranean). In two days now, we've basically done a loop around the northern part of the country ... from Tzfat, north almost to Lebanon, East almost to Syria (almost is a good thing in these cases), south to the southern edge of the Kinneret, and now west back to the coast. The first 145 miles of our Israel Ride are behind us!

One thing I've learned -- the "granny gear" is my friend. In past years, where I probably conditioned more for the ride, I didn't use it a lot, though I now realize that it was always there for me. This year, I like it! Though today's ride was marked by more "rolling" hills than some of the very long climbs that we did yesterday, granny let me enjoy all of it.

Also, as you bike through the north, you witness first hand the miracle that is modern Israel - in some areas, the terrain and land is not so different from what it must have looked like 100 years ago -- challenging. But, throughout the day, as we made our way back to the coast, we saw the farms, some of the industry, and development that now support a thriving (even this year!) economy and a population that has grown to over seven million! It's amazing.

Over the first two days of the ride, we also learned a lot about the JNF and their role in the development of the area. Accept for the "truck stops" or bus stops, virtually every other place that we have stopped is a JNF/KKL park or recreation area, and they are all beautiful. Beyond the infrastructure, reforestation, water projects. etc., signs of the JNF's role as the "caretaker of the land of Israel" are everywhere. As a member of Team JNF and a member of the JNF in Boston, it is really great to see. Additionally, Alon Tol, the founder of the Arava Institute is the lead environmental educator on the ride, and he has been great about drawing our attention to the many things that are being done, or can be done, to assure sustainable, environmentally sound development here. One of the big investments that is being made now, throughout the country, is the investment in bike routes (both road and off road) that will make most of the country a more "bike friendly" environment. I'm good with that!

All of my pictures from the ride are archived in a Picasa web album:

Tzfat Start

Adam and I at the start of the first day of the 2009 Israel Ride. After days of rain, we started in rain gear -- but the weather for the day turned out to be excellent!
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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Day (one) is done...

Wow! I don't know where to start,. but there is a lot to share from the first day of the November 2009 Israel Ride. I'll start with the highlights:

1. While this is my 4th Israel Ride, it is not getting old. Today's route, from Tzfat, north towards Lebanon, then East, through the Hula Valley, and into the Golan Heights (formerly controlled by Syria), then south, past the Kinneret to Kibbutz Maagan on the south eastern edge of the Kinneret, was just fantastic.

2. It was truly exciting, gratifying, and really beyond words for Adam and Michelle to join me for the first day of the ride. They both did the complete route, and did it in a way that would make any parent proud. For Michelle, especially, just a few records were broken today:
- the farthest, by over 65 miles, she had ever ridden a bicycle (she rode about 74 miles today)
- the most challenging climb, over five miles, that she had ever done on a bike (and she did a great job of it)
- the fastest, on one big downhill, that she had ever ridden a bike (I won't say, but it was fast)

This was not easy, as even some pretty experienced riders were challenged by parts of the route. The strength and character that Michelle showed on the route today will inspire some of the other riders here for the rest of the week.

Excellent day for Adam too, and really fun to be able to share this part of the ride with both him and Michelle.

3. This is an archeologically and historically rich part of Israel and, as a result, the day included several 'teaching' stops, which really added to the texture of the day. Not to mention that they provided some welcome breaks!

4. Awesome weather. I'm not sure who arranged it, but the rain of the past week came to a screeching halt and, other than delaying the start of today's ride by a few minutes, it had no effect on us -- we had near perfect weather.

It was about 74 miles of hard work, special time with family, a chance to visit with some old friends, and time to meet some new ones. And, great fun. A day on the Israel Ride!

Tomorrow, Day Two, and, hopefully a bit about "connections"(it is a very small world). While not yet organized, some of my photos from the ride are in a Picasa web album:

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Israel's Prayers Answered!

After a drought of several years, with all it's consequences (water rationing, farms closed, economic hardship, etc), Israel's prayers have been answered with truly torrential rains for most of the past several days. In Tel Aviv, it looked like we were witnessing the type of storms that usually come with hurricanes, and here in Tzfat the rains were even harder -- even in this city where all the roads flow steeply downhill, there was some flooding. But for the reality that I didn't want to ruin my camera in the rain, I wish I had taken a few pictures!

Still, shortages persist -- I learned last night that all of this rain will raise the level of the Kinneret, Israel's primary watershed, by about 5 centimeters. That's good. Unfortunately, with the sea level a full five meters below normal, that means that we need another 100 days of this type of rain. (and I always thought that 40 days and 40 nights would pretty much do the trick).

The rain aside, it is truly exciting to be in Tzfat for the start, tomorrow morning, of my 4th Israel Ride. The forecast is for the rain to take a break for the next several days (more prayers answered!), so we should be leaving tomorrow under a clear sky, and on roads freshly washed clear of most hazards (other than the cars). What more could we ask for?

Today is the "staging" day for the ride -- time to put the bikes back together or get fitted for rentals, test to be sure that everything is working (mind, body, bike, not necessarily in that order), meet old Israel Ride friends, and make new ones! We'll also have time to visit and learn about the ancient, mystical city of Tzfat.

For me, so far, this is already a trip of special treats -- I arrived in Tel Aviv Sunday evening in time for dinner with my step-sister Arlene and Ami, and spent the night and the next morning visiting with Adam and Michelle in Tel Aviv. The have a wonderful apartment that is literally across a short walkway from the beach, just a few doors down from the home (now museum) of David Ben Gurion, and a short walk to some of the great neighborhoods (aka, restaurants!) of Tel Aviv. And, yesterday, after arriving in Tzfat, we got to spend a wonderful evening with my nephew Guy, Inbar, and their three adorable children -- all born in the few years since I last saw Guy! Truly a nice family welcome to Israel! And, the week has just begun...

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Heading Out for the Adventure of a Lifetime -- Again!

This is it! This Saturday evening I leave for Israel and my fourth Israel Ride! I hope you'll stay tuned for my posts from the ride....