Cross-country biker recounts many peaks of fundraising ride

Emma Egger Epstein recently biked across the United States to raise money for Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps.

Upon her completion, the Seattle native took time for reflection — one of the key components of her fellowship with Avodah. 

Emma Egger Epstein

“One of the things I’ve had to come to terms with recently is that most of America is not Jewish,” Epstein, 23, writes in her blog. “Many people from small-town America have never met a Jewish person before. It is quite ironic thinking back to the planning, telling myself and my travel mates, ‘We’ll just stay with the Jewish family in town.’”

She and her cycling partners, boyfriend J.P. Sauerlender and co-worker Alli Van Beek, realized they would need to stay wherever they could find shelter during the 3,100-mile ride that began in the nation’s capital Aug. 12.

Epstein was in the Bay Area recently to visit with relatives, unwind and talk about her travels.      

It took 71 days to reach Newport Beach, their final stop after a strenuous journey that took them on a coast-to-coast tour through some of the most scenic spots in the country, among them the Appalachians, Iowa corn fields and the Continental Divide.  

“That was my most emotional time,” Epstein said of reaching the Continental Divide. “We were more than halfway done and I started thinking, ‘What the heck are we doing?’ But every single hill we went up was an accomplishment.”   

The trio began their trek on the East Coast at the D.C. Jewish Community Center, riding about 60 miles each day. Van Beek split from the others in Chicago, where Epstein spoke about her work with Avodah at a nearby synagogue. Epstein also stopped at congregations in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Denver, Los Angeles, and Fairfield, Iowa.

Armed with pannier packs stuffed with granola bars, water, a camping stove and sleeping gear, Epstein and Sauerlender rode for roughly nine hours each day. They stopped at McDonalds’ along their route to take advantage of the free Wi-Fi, so Epstein could write entries in her blog.

At sunset, the pair would randomly knock on locals’ doors for a place to stay the night. Not once were they turned away.

In 71 days, Epstein noted, she and her boyfriend only had to pay for five nights of lodging. One family in Iowa let them sleep in their guest room, raid their fridge and take showers. “We were in shock,” Epstein said of the couple’s hospitality. “But that’s the small-town mentality. They trust everybody.”    

Epstein raised about $3,000 for Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps, a New York-based agency that provides an opportunity for young people to engage in social justice work while fostering Jewish values. 

Fellows live in “an intentional Jewish life” while engaging in work for social change. In August 2009, Epstein began a fellowship with CAIR Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based agency working to ensure all immigrants are treated with fairness, dignity and respect. She completed her work prior to the start of the ride. 

Epstein, who is fluent in Spanish, studied anthropology at Colorado College and wanted to continue learning about foreign cultures after graduation. She was especially inspired by the notion of direct service, though success was slow and instant gratification was rare. 

“If you see someone on the street and give them a dollar, you feel good,” Epstein explained. “But you’re so removed from where the money is actually going. At my fellowship, you might go weeks without success, but I knew where the ‘dollar’ was going.”

After work, Epstein returned to her household with 17 other Jewish roommates. They shared rooms, food and chores, and gathered every Tuesday for educational programs related to homelessness and poverty. 

Avodah fellows are also stationed in New Orleans, New York and Chicago.

As most avid cyclists can understand, Epstein wants to get back on her bike soon. But for now, she’s resting her muscles and reflecting on her accomplishment.

“I am a person who usually doesn’t follow through on anything,” Epstein said. “By setting goals and making dates to be certain places with a bike, I realized I could follow through. I have this new confidence.”

She added, “I also learned that if you eat the right food and have time, you can climb the Rockies.”