In early August, six men from New Rochelle and White Plains participated in the bike ride of a lifetime. White Plains residents David Siegel, Dudi Fish and Yitzy Spinner, and New Rochelle residents Robert Friedman, Shaun Meller and Bradley Sher biked more than 150 miles in the annual Bike4Chai, an event and fundraiser for Chai Lifeline’s Camp Simcha. Organized almost entirely by one man, Yoel Margolese, the event was a tremendous success, raising nearly $6 million and seeing more than 400 riders from North America and Israel participate.
Bike4Chai was started six years ago, when Dovid Egert, a Chai Lifeline volunteer from Lakewood, went to board a bus headed to the camp with his bike in tow. The driver wouldn’t let him on the bus, telling him that the bike was not allowed. Egert responded with, “Fine, I’ll bike there.” From then on, a tradition was born, after Egert raised over $10,000. The official run is either 165 or 176 miles from Stamford, Connecticut, with what Spinner described as “very serious hill-climbing throughout the way,” to Glen Spey, NY, where the camp is located.
The story behind the White Plains Bike4Chai contingent was an inspirational one. Fish, a mountain biker, was drawn to helping the Camp Simcha children after seeing a girl in the White Plains community who was suffering from cancer “going to treatment after treatment.” With the help of Chai Lifeline, she was fortunate enough to be able to spend two summers at Camp Simcha. In wanting to help this girl and the Chai Lifeline initiative, Fish biked in the 2014 ride.
Upon returning to White Plains, he told the community about his unforgettable experience, and in 2015, Siegel and Spinner joined him. Collectively raising over $18,000, the three men found the experience “incredible,” said Spinner, who described the highlight as ending at Camp Simcha “where all these kids are walking over to you and genuinely saying thank you because they want to be able to have this special experience and have fun in the midst of their challenges.”
The New Rochelle contingent had similar motivations to participate in the event, but also regularly compete in charity bike rides for other causes. For them, the alignment with Chai Lifeline was a cause they identified heavily with, especially with past visits to the community from Rabbi Simcha Scholar. Raising over $75,000, they joined the other bikers. As Scher said, the ride was “an experience you have to see and truly have to do to understand it.” This was Scher’s second year.
Siegel shared more about his motivation behind going, saying it was threefold. On a personal level, he just turned 40 and had a bucket list of things to do. Among them was hiking up Mount Kilimanjaro, which he was able to do in the spring. The next item on his bucket list was doing a century bike ride (a 100-mile bike ride). “The concept of pushing oneself physically and mentally is something that is a phenomenal experience because that is oftentimes how you grow as an individual,” he said. His longest bike ride prior to the Chai Lifeline event was a third of the total length of the Bike4Chai ride.
On a family level, Siegel talked about going on this ride on the second yahrzeit of his father, who passed away from lymphoma. As cancer negatively affected his family, he felt very strongly about raising money in his late father’s honor. Finally, Siegel agreed with his counterparts in that the opportunity to raise money for charity was a cause he felt strongly about.
The ride took place over two days, beginning on August 5th in Stamford, where bikers traveled either 55 or 65 miles depending on the route chosen, and stopping in Vernon, NJ for the night. The following day, the ride continued into the Catskills until culminating at Camp Simcha. To Fish, that was also one of the most empowering moments: despite struggling by biking so hard for so long in the heat, “all the little things that made it hard completely fall away when you see a kid in a wheelchair with an oxygen tank, with one eye and four fingers on his hand, give you a medal. It blows you away.” As Friedman said, “The fact that Camp Simcha takes the time to celebrate us and our accomplishment, which pales in comparison to what Camp Simcha does for the children—the lesson of hakarat hatov is simply tremendous.”
The biking group was a diverse crowd, a “nice cross section of various Jewish communities, from Charedi to Chasidic to Sephardic to non-religious/secular, and to me, that’s a beautiful thing,” said Siegel. Meller added, “Most people who do this are not in the physical shape to do this type of event. They gather the strength because of the end goal.”
At the close of the first day, most had gotten to the hotel in Vernon, NJ, by 7:30pm. Two hours later, the group was notified that the last rider was coming in. Given the grueling ride, which included a 10-mile stretch uphill on Bear Mountain, it was clear he was struggling. It was dark, and ambulances came through “with their lights and sirens blazing,” Spinner said. “Then you see this guy coming in on a hand cycle. He’s lying on his back and using his hand [to cycle], because he only has one leg,” having lost the other to osteosarcoma. Yet, it was this former camper’s third year in the ride.
The event is orchestrated by Margolese in such a way that every little detail is considered. All bikes are affixed with transponders that enable family and friends to track each individual’s’ progress, so that bikers are encouraged and motivated regularly by texts and calls from family (and even surprise visits). “It makes for a really supportive experience,” Siegel said.
Bikers’ spirits are boosted further when they ride by signs that say, “You think this is tough? Try this!” picturing a camper who is bald from chemotherapy treatments. “It’s inspiration that whatever pain you’re experiencing is short lived. They’re enduring it for their whole lives,” Meller said.
The event also attracted celebrity athletes George Hincapie, Christian Vande Velde and Amani Toomer who were also moved by the impact of the race. Of all the races he does, Hincapie said, “this was by far the most gratifying.” As Meller described, “Not only is it an event where 400 riders have raised close to $6 million, which is a remarkable proportion on a per-rider basis, but you literally see where the money goes the moment you come into camp. There’s a direct connection between physical output and it all comes together right there and at that moment.” In fact, Bike4Chai is the number-one fundraising cycling event per capita in North America.
Every year, a captain further motivates the bikers to persevere and keep on biking. This year, the captain, who goes by the name Chimchuri, addressed the group. He had gone to Camp Simcha with leukemia and overcame the illness, but fell ill as a result of his suppressed immune system that put him in a coma for two weeks. While nearly 90 percent of those suffering from this virus die, he survived, but he lost his legs and all of his fingers. Yet, he stood before the crowd with more energy than anyone in the room and addressed them with a huge smile on his face. His memorable words were, “No legs, no limits.”
It put everything in perspective.
by Tamar Weinberg