2018-01-03 / Home

South Jersey residents explore Israel by bicycle

Taking a break from their bicycles in the Negev were (from left), Pnina Mintz, Mark Mintz, Mike Yasner and David Gastfriend, a psychiatrist in Newton, MA who is from Cherry Hill.Taking a break from their bicycles in the Negev were (from left), Pnina Mintz, Mark Mintz, Mike Yasner and David Gastfriend, a psychiatrist in Newton, MA who is from Cherry Hill.By JAYNE JACOVA FELD

Voice staff

Mark Mintz’s first stint in Israel was as a volunteer on a moshav in the Negev Desert in 1983. So it is perhaps not surprising that the Voorhees resident has long been fascinated by the blossoming of cities and agricultural communities in the Negev.

Although his last trip to Israel, accompanied by his Israeli-born wife Pnina, was his 15th or so return visit, it was like seeing the country through new eyes. Experiencing Israel on the seat of a bicycle--trekking some 300 miles through mountain, desert and urban landscapes over seven days--will do that.

“When you’re out there on a bike in the countryside, seeing everything on your own, paying attention to every rock or plant, it’s a different perspective and connection to the land,” said Mintz, a pediatric neurologist and founder of the Voorhees-based Center for Neurological and Neurodevelopmental Health. “It very much deepened my appreciation for the miracle that is Israel.”

The Mintzes, along with Mike Yasner of Cherry Hill, took part in the 14th annual Israel Ride in November.

Billed as Israel’s premier cycling experience, the adventure features five days of riding and a rest day for Shabbat. It offers participants a unique opportunity to bike through Israel’s varied terrain while learning about the Middle East’s shared environmental challenges and efforts to create a healthier, more sustainable world. A partnership between environmental groups--the Israeli-based Arava Institute and U.S.-based Hazon, the event raises thousands of dollars annually for those causes.

Riders hail from across the globe, with the bulk coming from North America. The Philadelphia metropolitan area is always well represented, said Yasner, noting that some 20 participants in 2017 came from the region.

One of the strengths of the ride, he noted, is that it attracts people, largely Jews, from varied backgrounds and political mindsets who share a love of the land.

“It’s community-building,” explained Yasner, a Temple Beth Sholom congregant who organizes local Hazon rides, including one in the Pinelands, while his wife Val is on Hazon’s national advisory board.

“Everyone is tolerant, coexists, respects each other and learns from each other,” said Yasner, who was a return rider, having experienced it nine years ago. “It’s a positive model of religious collaboration and pluralism within our own faith.”

Participants this time around were as young as a boy celebrating his bar mitzvah to couples in their 70s. One rugged young rabbi did the entire ride in sandals, tzitzit flying in the wind, said Yasner. It works for so many people of varying degrees of physical wellbeing because riders can choose each day among routes that vary between 35 and 90 miles, and graded by difficulty. They could also choose not ride at all and sightsee instead.

“Most people use it as opportunity to push themselves so they feel like they made a big accomplishment,” said Yasner, a periodontist.

At the ride’s finishing point, in Eilat, participants are photographed hoisting their bikes above their head.

Yasner said he was pleasantly surprised by how much he got out of it this time around. Not being a rookie, he opted to do a combination of the intermediate and more advanced itineraries.

“The route is spectacular and there are challenging elements for everybody, especially when you’re from New Jersey and used to flat terrain,” said Yasner, who rode with his brother-in-law while Val attended an immersion class in Hebrew throughout the week, joining them for Shabbat.

For Pnina, a highlight was spending time with volunteers and seeing firsthand how Israel and its neighbors are cooperatively tackling sustainability issues that know no geographical boundaries.

“It was not only a physical experience but an educational one as well,” said Pnina, who works with Mark at CNNH as executive vice president and the director of research. “We learned about challenges affecting people globally and how the work at both institutions are connecting people.”

The Mintzes raised more than $8,500 for the environmental causes as well as NeurAbilities, a non-profit organization they founded that supports creative arts program for children with special needs. Yasner raised a similar amount through the ride.

Hazon is holding an information session about the 2018 ride, which takes place Oct. 23-30, at 7 p.m. Jan. 16 at the Katz JCC.

For more information, visit israelride.org.

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