Riding bikes is a fun way to bring people together, sharing the fun, sun, struggle and successes of fellow riders on long treks over tough terrain.
That’s what the Jewish Federation of Louisville hoped for with Bikes & Bourbon, a program sponsored by the Federation and Partnership2Gether. Israeli bikers joined local riders to peddle along Kentucky’s back roads and countryside, visiting bourbon distilleries and sharing in a little two-wheel fellowship.
Partnership2Gether is a project of the Jewish Agency for Israel, whose goal is to bring together Israelis with American Jews for different experiences, said Matt Goldberg, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. “We love Partnership,” Goldberg said. “It’s really about people-to-people connections, and it does bring Jews and Israelis together.”
The idea for Bikes & Bourbon took hold three years ago when three Louisvillians – event Chair Bill Altman, Colyn Jofee and Jon Klein – went to Israel for a bike ride with Partnership. Altman loved it so much that he decided he’d like to arrange something similar in Louisville. After bringing Partnership on board, the event began to come together.
It’s the first of its kind outside of Israel, Goldberg said. “To do it here in the States is unique, and we’re really thrilled about it.”
The event brought together about 40 riders, including nine Israelis and one staff person from Israel.
“It’s wonderful,” Goldberg said. “There are all different age groups – men, women – and everybody is becoming friends, and that’s what this is all about. To do it in Louisville, and do the rides in Kentucky. It’s just fantastic to be the catalyst of building these relationships.”
Event Coordinator Amy Gandell Fouts was struck by how quickly Israelis and Americans were forming relationships.
“It’s so amazing that we have made the connections,” she said, noting that some hosts and guests were calling each other “brother” after only a few days together.
The cyclists rode over a four-day period, from Friday, October 5, through Monday, October 8. The longest rides were 70 miles long, in celebration of Israel’s 70th birthday, but some riders took shorter routes – 40 or 25 miles. depending on what was available each day.
The first day of the event included a dedication of a mosaic created by Dr. Lisa Klein, which celebrates Israel’s birthday. When Klein was telling her story, Fouts said she saw Osnat Golan, an Israeli and wife of cyclist Amos Golan, crying.
“She had no idea that people in the U.S. had such love for Israel,” Fouts said.
On Sunday, the group ended its ride at Against the Grain Brewery, where they ate lunch and sipped beers. Tired and sweaty, having ridden in unseasonably warm weather, they talked and laughed together as a group.
Matthew Karr, who hosted the Golans in his home, believes he has made friends for life.
“The cultural diversity between our two countries, the gulf between us is so huge,” Karr said. “Even just watching people’s bike riding styles – they ride on the highway there. There’s a lot of shouting. Our friends from Israel, going down these steep hills in the woods and forests, [shout] ‘Whoo,’ they never get this [at home]. They live in the desert. It’s interesting to see.”
Karr loves the connections he’s made with Israel throughout his life and the passion that Israelis have for their country. “That’s why I’m involved [with Bikes & Bourbon], and I like to ride my bike. And I have a very sore tuchus. And we still have one more day.”
Two riders who took to the Kentucky roads were Sophia Oren and Liran Bar-Yoav, of Riding Far, an Israeli program that works to help children at risk.
Riding Far consists mostly of teens, Oren said, who have had a rough background and who may be at risk for a potential life of crime because of their backgrounds and the economic gaps in Israeli society. The program takes the teens out on bike treks that often include camping trips.
Bike trips make a huge difference in the success of these teens, she’s concluded. When they are out on an extended bike trip, they can’t just quit in the middle of the route; they must find a way to solve their problems and push on to the end of the trip.
Bar-Yoav, a businessman from Tel Aviv, said he found Riding Far when his buddies dropped out of a planned bike-packing trip and he was looking for someone to ride with.
“I thought, ‘What the hell? Worst case scenario, if I have all I need I can take off whenever.’”
He was shocked to find the kids in the group were more challenging than he thought. One teen he was paired with wanted to quit after just one mile, throwing a tantrum and tossing his bike into the bushes and demanding a ride back home. When he didn’t get one, Bar-Yoav walked with him and talked. They eventually became friends and finished the 12-mile trek together.
“For a cyclist, it’s nothing, but for him it’s like he crossed the United States,” Bar-Yoav said.
The riders from Israel were not just Jews. There was an Arab Christian and a Druze on the trip, too. They both touted the western Galilee, Louisville’s Partnership region, as a place where many ethnic groups and religions live peacefully.
“When I go to work, I work with Jews, with Arabs, with Muslims,” said Taiser Bishars, an Arab Christian. “I don’t want to talk about things that make us apart. I want to talk about things that I can share my daily life with you. I want to talk about my son, my work, my hobbies and be happy with it. On a personal level, I think everybody – like what’s happening here – can get along.“
Ayal Falah, who is Druze, also works with Riding Far, which is how he came to join the ride.
“When I was younger it was my dream to visit the U.S.,” he said. “But I didn’t think it would be like this. For me, it’s like achieving two dreams: First dream is coming to the U.S. and the second dream is meeting all the great people here and biking with them.”
All the riders from Israel said they were amazed at Kentucky’s beauty and the hospitality of their hosts.
“I’m shocked,” Falah said. “Everything I see, I say ‘Wow! Wow! Wow!’”
Colyn and Ellen Jofee were his hosts. “I mean, I have a new family now.”
Fouts said her experience was just as enriching as that of the visitors.
“I can’t wait to start in the morning to get to see them, and at night, I smile so hard my cheeks hurt. It’s an amazing group.”
Karr said serving on the committee has been rewarding. “People should take advantage to help out, serve on a committee, like we did, to help organize. Yes, it takes effort, but it’s a mitzvah and the rewards in return are huge.”