Jewish Bicyclists Pedal to Promote Agricultural Sustainability

Cycling for sustainable communities, a group of Jewish bicyclists pedaled through Wheeling this month on a cross-country trek to promote agricultural sustainability.

Participants in the Hazon Cross-USA Ride concluded a 10-week journey four days ago, arriving at their final destination in Washington, D.C., Wednesday, Aug. 15.

The bicyclists, ranging in age from 19 to 70, reached the Friendly City on Tuesday, Aug. 7. After showering at Wheeling Central Catholic High School, the riders shared a meal and met congregation members at Temple Shalom on Bethany Pike. Later, they unrolled their sleeping bags and spent the night in the temple building before heading off to Pittsburgh and points east.

Rabbi Beth Jacowitz Chottiner of Temple Shalom and other members of the congregation welcomed the visitors as they cycled into the temple’s parking lot. Members of the Hazon support team shuttled the bicyclists between the temple in Woodsdale and the high school complex in downtown Wheeling. While the cyclists were showering and resting, their support team performed the actions necessary to make the temple’s kitchen kosher and then prepared a kosher supper for the riders.

Founded a decade ago by Nigel Savage, Hazon is dedicated to providing Jewish inspiration and developing sustainable communities. The rabbi explained that Hazon means “vision” in Hebrew.

The Cross-USA Ride – the first of four upcoming rides – began in Seattle on June 7. Its purpose was to support sustainable food systems.

The number of cyclists varied for each leg of the 3,600-mile trip. “Some will have the time to do the entire cross-country trip,” the rabbi said. “Others will do certain legs.”

Ten cyclists made the cross-country trek through 13 states and 60 others joined along the way, officials said. For the final leg, 29 riders cycled into Washington. The group’s communications manager said the riders raised more than $120,000 in support of sustainable food systems from more than 1,200 donors.

Upon arrival in Washington, Hazon officials said, the bicyclists were welcomed at the White House by Jarrod Bernstein, White House director of Jewish outreach, and Max Finberg, director of USDA Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Savage, Hazon’s executive director, voiced Hazon’s concerns about the Farm Bill and the drought.

During the stop in Wheeling, rider Howard Rosen of Carlisle, Pa., said he flew to Chicago to join his son for the Chicago-to-Pittsburgh leg of the journey. Rosen said that he and six other riders planned to leave the group in Pittsburgh, where 12 others were to join the ride. About 30 riders were expected to cycle the final leg from Pittsburgh to Washington, he said.

Adrienne Winton, who coordinated logistics for the trip, said the group stayed in a variety of settings, including campsites, Jewish community centers, a college dormitory and First Baptist Church in Miles City, Mont.

The riders found issues of sustainability to be “so relevant” as they traveled through the Dakotas, Winton said. In Aberdeen, S.D., an agricultural department spokesman talked about growing corn and raising cattle on his farm, she recalled.

Along the way, Winton said, “We do a lot of classes on Judaism and the environment.” She said they heard from farmers who expressed concern that, with the current drought, “the Farm Bill is not going to support them at all.” Instead, she said, assistance from the Farm Bill is “going to bigger farmers with corn and soybean” crops.

Part of Hazon’s mission, Winton explained, focuses on leadership – providing people with resources to be leaders- and on “capacity building” for building communities. To understand the issues and undertake projects for sustainability, a synagogue is paired with a local farm and members of the community meet with local farmers, she said.

The Cross-USA Ride attracted “every kind of Jew,” from age 19 to 70, Winton said. “One of our 63-year-olds is doing the entire country,” she added.

Each individual rider becomes part of “a mobile Jewish community,” the coordinator observed. “A lot of them are environmentally driven.” For the younger participants, the ride offers “a sense of autonomy, a sense of independence,” she said.

“I think it’s a transformative experience for everyone,” Winton commented. “A lot of people have changed since June.”

Residents who encountered the cyclists along their route also were transformed by the experience. In one town in North Dakota, a Jewish doctor and family were “the only Jewish people in that community,” she recalled. Referring to one member of the family who met the Jewish young professionals, Winton said, “She had never experienced vibrant Jewish life.”

Winton, 27, who completed her undergraduate studies at Brandeis University and earned a master’s degree in outdoor education, worked for the Jewish Federation for two and one-half years before joining the Hazon staff as a coordinator. “I always wanted to work for Hazon,” she said.

Steven Morris, a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, was one of the three staff members traveling with the bicyclists. “We have multiple jobs,” he said

For example, Morris assisted with bicycle maintenance and helped the riders prepare dinner. “I get to do some Jewish teachings and presentations,” he said, adding that he delivered a sermon on the Torah portion of the service when the group worshiped at Temple Israel in Dayton.

During the bike rides, food preparation is done according to kosher standards. “It’s Hazon’s policy to maintain kosher so that everyone feels comfortable,” he said.

In order to keep kosher, the bike team carries its own supplies, including two sets of utensils, pots, pans, serving dishes and tableware – one set for meat and one for dairy. The group also travels with three camping stoves for cooking meals where a kitchen is unavailable.

Morris explained that they make a kitchen kosher by “turning up the stove as high as it can go to burn off any remnants (of meat and dairy products)” and pouring “boiling water on the counters and sink.” Aluminum foil also may be placed on work surfaces in the kitchen to ensure that there is no cross-contamination between meat and dairy.

A meat supplier donates meat for the ride on a weekly basis. “All of the chicken and cattle are grass-fed, organic, free range, and it’s kosher,” Morris said.

Meanwhile, Hazon officials are organizing a two-day retreat and a two-day ride through the Hudson Valley in New York Aug. 31-Sept. 3; a week-long ride in Israel from Oct. 30 to Nov. 6 and a two-day ride in California from Sonoma County to San Francisco in spring 2013.

Between 2001-11, the bike rides raised more than $2.5 million, Hazon officials said. According to a statement on its website, “From the proceeds of these events, Hazon has received $1.3 million which has supported our programs over the years. Nearly $650,000 has been distributed as grants. Additionally, Hazon has distributed $25,000 in partnership funding to local community projects. In total, 105 projects or programs which are in line with our mission have received funding.”

According to the website, Hazon’s bike rides raise money for “cutting-edge Jewish environmental projects in the United States and Israel” and support Hazon’s community building projects and year-round programming.

In addition to the rides, the Hazon Food Conference, an annual gathering of the New Jewish Food Movement, will be held in Falls Village, Conn., Dec. 6-9, coinciding with the beginning of Hanukkah on Dec. 8.

Promotional information on the organization’s website stated: ” The Hazon Food Conference explores the intersection of Jewish tradition and contemporary food issues, with the goal of supporting leaders to create healthier and more sustainable communities in the Jewish world and beyond. Our annual event brings together passionate people who are working for sustainable food systems in their own lives, communities, nationally and abroad.”