I recently returned from an inspiring 400-mile bike trip through Israel with wounded veterans of the Israel Defense Forces and 40 cycling enthusiasts from the United States. Some had lived in Israel and even served in the IDF while others were visiting Israel for the first time. What unified the group was a love of cycling and appreciation for the young soldiers who protect Israel.
One of the most startling things that happened on the trip, which was organized by Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, was the transformation of those with little connection to the country. It reminded me of the young adults who casually decide to attend a free Birthright trip to Israel and, while there, discover or rediscover their connection to Judaism. However, in this case, we’re talking about people who are in their 50s.
One of the riders was raised a practicing Catholic, but was recently told that his family actually has hidden Jewish roots. Another rider had visited Israel once before, 30 years ago, and hadn’t been back since. Some were actively involved in their Jewish communities back home but still had tenuous connections to Israel.
It wasn’t like a giant light bulb went off above everyone’s heads during the ride. This was a gradual, organic and very personal transformation.
As you’re struggling to climb up Mount Hermon (Israel’s tallest peak) on a bicycle, and a wounded vet peddles by with one leg because the other was destroyed by a land mine, you start to question what sacrifices you’ve made for others. You pull into a remote army base in 100-plus degree weather and listen to 18-year-old men and women in green uniforms describe how they see no contradiction in defending Israel and advocating for peace. It makes you think how much more meaningful their lives seem even though they are a quarter your age.
The clincher happens while you’re sitting on your bike’s saddle for hours and hours, riding past one ancient Jewish archaeological site or modern development town after another. You begin to realize that you have deep roots within the land. The dusty Bible stories from a foreign place you heard about in Sunday school are replaced with a profound, personal connection. Your identity is solidified.
Most of the people who went on this trip thought they were coming for some aggressive biking. They didn’t realize that experiencing Israel while doing something they love would have a profound impact on their lives. Now the stories they heard from their parents and grandparents make more sense. They start to think about future trips to Israel, read the news differently and find themselves advocating on behalf of Israel and its soldiers.
Now that I’m back in the U.S., I realize there are so many people who have misconceptions about and a lack of connection to Israel. My six-day bike ride with wounded vets and meeting with Israel’s next generation on army bases around the country made me understand that the roots of this deep bond we have with Israel have always been, and will forever be, the shared hope for the future and safety of Jews around the world.
These young brave soldiers have inspired me. They have made me so proud to be a part of FIDF, an organization that supports and cares for them while they look after Israel.
Jonathan Bernstein is executive director of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, San Francisco Bay Area region.