Putting their mettle to the pedal: Local riders, activists join Hazon on 10-week journey across U.S.

Eleven Jews are pedaling — and peddling — their message across the country.

Joined by more than three dozen other bicyclists at segments along the way, participants in the Hazon Cross-USA Ride, a 10-week journey across America, are on a multifold mission.

They are bringing attention to the environment by powering their own transportation; calling for the government to make healthy food systems a priority by collecting signatures on a petition to be presented to the White House and U.S. Department of Agriculture; putting a spotlight on sustainable farming through talks with Jewish community groups; and meeting with farmers to learn firsthand about sustainable agriculture.

Former Berkeley resident Renna Khuner-Haber

The Hazon ride’s focus on food systems and sustainable farming is part of a growing Jewish interest in food justice, typically defined as sharing resources in an equitable way.

To Nigel Savage, Hazon’s executive director, food justice means not only ensuring that everyone has access to nutritional food. He says it’s also about “health, sustainability, local food, organic food, traditional issues around kashrut.

“We also want to ask what would it look like if the highest Jewish standards were applied to food systems in North America,” Savage said.

That goal resonates with former Berkeley resident Renna Khuner-Haber, 26, who in September will study nutrition at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Wash.

“A lot of rides happen across the country for a particular mission or just for fun, but this is the only Jewish cross-country ride,” said Khuner-Haber, 26, who currently lives in Seattle, where the ride began on June 10. “All our food is kosher, we have rest days on Shabbat, and we are weaving in other Jewish themes and traditions. For instance, every day one rider carries a mini Torah …  and that rider passes it to someone else for the next day.”

By the time the cyclists arrive in Washington, D.C. on Aug. 15, they will have visited 70 Jewish communities and participated in five community service days, including one with Missoula Free Cycle, a Montana group that repairs and donates bicycles.

“This ride is all about people, making connections in the community,” said Oakland resident Rafi Rubin, 30, a systems engineer who organized training sessions for Hazon before the ride began. “We are a network of do-gooders, of environmentally concerned and inspired people. Though it definitely is a bike ride, in that we are on bikes and riding, everything else is about the individuals who have chosen to participate.”

One key individual is Hazon board member Howard Metzen-berg, a former Bay Area technology executive who recently moved to Seattle. Metzenberg, a strong advocate for transportation alternatives and a devoted biker, says he is the only cross-country rider who is “shlepping [his] own gear.

Rafi Rubin of Oakland at the Idaho border

“I’m not only planning to ride all 3,600 miles to D.C., but I’m very happily carrying on my bike all my clothes, tools, electronics and camping gear. I have four panniers and I’d guess my bike weighs about 70 pounds. I’m figuring that the excess calorie burn for me shlepping my gear would be an extra 200,000 calories — if I were not planning to eat a lot more food I’d probably lose 60 pounds in weight.”

Earlier this month, Hazon was among seven national Jewish groups that delivered a petition with some 18,000 signatures to the leadership of the  House of Representatives and the Obama administration demanding a focus on food justice in the pending farm bill.

The Senate already has passed its version of the bill but did not include full funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides food stamps. Jewish organizations had pressed for funding. The House has yet to vote on its version of the bill but may make further cuts to SNAP.

Timi Gerson, director of advocacy for the American Jewish World Service, one of the seven groups to present the petition, says two external factors are driving the Jewish community’s growing attention to food justice. One is the national food justice movement; the other is the farm bill, which comes up once every five years.

Jewish tradition, Gerson says, “has something to say and to teach about ethical food practices and systems.”

Khuner-Haber agrees. “I think we need to raise awareness about the actions we can take, and also what we can ask the local, state and federal government to do,” she said.

On the first day of the ride, participants visited Jubilee Farms in Carnation, Wash., where they had a chance to meet organic farmers.

“We learned from them that it is a struggle to use farming practices that are outside of industrial agriculture and that they do it because it is important to do it,” said Rubin.

The cyclists also harvested artichokes — and were allowed to keep some.

“We actually went out and picked our own sustenance,” Rubin added. “It made me feel very connected to the source; it was very different than going to the store and buying an artichoke.”

Adi Segal, 23, of Bergenfield, N.J., says one of the interesting aspects of the ride is the opportunity to meet people across the nation. “People are blown away that we are doing this, and it provides a great platform to teach about the goals of this trip, the mission of Hazon and the greater sustainable food movement,” he said.

For Jeremy Brochin, 65, one of the best parts of the ride is the “great sense of community.

“It’s lovely to be part of a multigenerational community where everybody pitches in, and so whether you are 50 or 20 it doesn’t make any difference,” said the Philadelphian, who is participating on the trip’s first five weeks.

Nonetheless, the challenge of cross-country biking is daunting, even for the experienced riders.

“Even though I ride a lot, this trip has been a huge adjustment for me,” said Rubin. “Everything revolves around us getting in a lot of miles each day. As exhausting as it is, when we stop we have to set up camp and cook, so you can’t give all your energy to the bike ride. Still, I am absolutely glad I signed up.”

Said Khuner-Haber: “Biking is definitely a physical challenge, but even after I signed up, I had never fully understood the physical challenge of camping every night with a flock of people. Still, I figured it would be an amazing experience. Plus, I knew if I didn’t do it now, I was never going to do it. My cousin tells me that after 27, your body is never quite the same, so I’m doing this at 26.”

J. correspondent Patricia Corrigan contributed to this report.