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Three Rabbis, Bound for the West Coast, on Bikes

With escort on first lap from special needs cyclists, three rabbis begin their ride across America.

Three rabbinical students set off on a cross-country bike ride on Sunday morning, the first part of their journey a testament to the true meaning of friendship. On the track of Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston, 100 special needs cyclists joined them to raise awareness for the Friendship Circle.

Olivia’s Friendship Cycle donated the bicycles – 100 specially adapted bikes, tricycles, and tandems for children with disabilities that include cerebral palsy, autism, and childhood stroke -- the idea of 11-year-old Olivia Lefkovits of Livingston as part of her Bat Mitzvah project. “I hope you use them for a very long time,” she told the families gathered on Sunday morning.

“These bikes are not just a collection of metal spokes, wheels, and chains,” observed Barry Goldberg of Livingston, a father who looked forward to riding again with his son Max. “They represent much more than that. They are a gift … of independence, confidence and a sense of self-worth.”

For some children, this was their first ride on a bike. Steering was a challenge as they zigzagged on the track. Parents said they looked forward to family rides. “We intend to be seen on the streets of South Orange with her (daughter Mora) on this bike,” said Ann Leeb.

“When my son Max was very little, I used to strap him into a child’s seat on the back of my bike,” said Goldberg. “He was so small his helmet came down over his eyes but he loved riding with me even if he couldn’t see very much.”

As Max got older, the family rode with a tag-a-long. “Max and I rode everywhere on this bike. Max loved the sense of freedom riding gave him: the wind in his face, the world whizzing by so fast. And I loved having an activity I could do with my son that we both enjoyed.”

But up until Sunday, the two hadn’t ridden together in two years. Max, now 15, outgrew the tag-a-long. “Frankly, I didn’t know whether I would ever experience the joy of riding with my son again … that is until today.”

On a specially adapted tandem, father-and-son pedaled around the track to the sounds of Klezmer music that floated across the field from the bandstand.

For the parents of 3 ½-year-old Mora, the day was doubly remarkable. She has been training in physical therapy for her first ride. The weekend also marked her three-year anniversary of major neurosurgery to stabilize her condition after a stroke.

“That she is here and riding is amazing,” said her mother Ann Leeb.

Greeting riders and families by first name, the Friendship Circle NJ’s executive director, served as host and traffic director. “Watch out, wide load coming through,” joked Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum as a side-by-side tandem rolled up to the starting line. “How you doing? Ready to roll?”

The three cross-country cyclists are students at the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown – Daniel Saul, Zalman Perlman, and Shmuel Rothstein. They agree it sounds like a far-fetched idea – three rabbis biking across America.

“But when you kids escort us on our way, however far it may be,” said Perlman, “it’s no longer three rabbis biking across America, but a Friendship Circle biking across America.”

The Friendship Circle is a Jewish organization for children with special needs with about 80 locations worldwide. The Livingston chapter serves 300 children and their families with a wide-range of services and support, Rabbi Grossbaum said. Volunteer support by 850 teens plays a big role in forming friendships and inclusion.

Speaking to the families, Rabbi Grossbaum told this story:

A man observed thousands of starfish beached on the sand. A girl was picking up the starfish one-by-one and throwing them back into the sea.

“There must be thousands of starfish on the beach,” the man said. “It will be impossible for you to save all them. There are simply too many.”

The young girl smiled and picked up another starfish and tossed it into the ocean.

“For that one,” the girl said. “I just made a difference.”

Speaking directly to the 11-year-old from Livingston, the rabbi concluded, “Olivia, today you made a difference for 100 children and their families.”

Goldberg was already looking forward to his ride with his son. "Maybe, someday, Max will be the one in front peddling around his old dad in the back."

Thank you to Levi Stein of Chabad.org who shares many of his photos from the day. You can also follow the riders coast to coast on the Bike 4 Friendship web site.

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