Three years ago, Betsy Diamant-Cohen had a double knee replacement. Once healed, the Baltimore resident got on a bicycle and slowly built up her strength to the point that she recently flew to Israel to participate in a cycling fundraiser for the Arava Institute and Hazon Israel Ride.
The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies (arava.org) trains Jews and Arabs to be environmental leaders, and Hazon (hazon.org) is America’s largest Jewish environmental group. Diamant-Cohen, a 57-year-old literacy expert, said she decided to participate in the ride supporting the two organizations after her husband, Stuart, did so a year earlier.
“He came home so enthusiastic that I decided I wanted to go with him this year,” she said. “We trained ahead of time by riding on weekends to build up endurance and muscles. But I kept reminding myself what I had been told: It’s a ride, not a race, so I didn’t push myself to exhaustion.”
As the popularity of physically demanding fundraisers has grown dramatically in Israel during the past decade, so too has the number of participants over the age of 50, some of whom travel to Israel expressly to take part in the events.
Diamant-Cohen said she took advantage of the option to sit out some of the tougher hills on the ride, thanks to the air-conditioned bus that accompanied the cyclists throughout their journey in southern Israel. The riders could enter the bus whenever they chose.
“I’m proud of myself for completing the journey, exhilarated at having ridden downhill to the Arava desert, glad to have raised money for causes I believe in, and a deep sense of kinship with the other riders,” she said.
Diamant-Cohen and her husband together raised a total of $11,395.
She said the fundraiser “allowed me to experience Israel in a way I have never experienced it before. I shared a unique experience with my husband, and I used the bike ride as an opportunity to come back to Israel to visit my friends and relatives.”
Israel’s most successful sports fundraiser is Wheels of Love (alynride.org), the annual charity bike ride on behalf of ALYN Hospital, Israel’s only pediatric and adolescent rehabilitation center. Last month, 700 riders, including many from abroad, took part in the strenuous five-day ALYN bike ride, as well as shorter routes. This year’s event has so far raised $2.44 million “with money still coming in,” said Erez Ezrachi, director of Wheels of Love.
Each participant commits to raising a minimum of $2,500, though many raise more than $5,000, and, as with other physically demanding events, must bring a doctor’s note certifying they are healthy enough to participate. They must also have health insurance. This year’s riders ranged from age 14 to 81, but Ezrachi said the average age of the participants was just over 50.
“Riders who have participated for years are getting older, so our average age is rising. But it’s also true that people in their 40s and 50s are more aware of their responsibility to the community, more philanthropic than their younger counterparts, and that’s who we tend to attract,” he said.
Thomas Shipley, 53, who lives in Demarest, N.J., raised a total of $22,000 during ALYN’s last two bike rides. He chose the most difficult on-road route: 350 miles, including the hilly Negev desert, from the great Ramon Crater to Eilat and then to the hospital in Jerusalem.
As the cyclists reached the hospital’s finish line, “We were greeted by the staff and the volunteers dancing and singing,” Shipley recalled. “The children were beating drums. We couldn’t help but feel the emotion.”
Mark Render, 62, is both a founder of and participant in the Hike for Hope, an event that has, over the past decade, raised more than $300,000 for Tsad Kadima (A Step Forward), a rehabilitation organization for children, adolescents and young adults with cerebral palsy and other motor dysfunctions. The annual event offers both extreme and newbie hikers a choice of routes. Several of the organization’s young beneficiaries participate in some of the hikes, often in wheelchairs.
“We started with 10 hikers and now we have 45,” Render said. “We are a small but very motivated group and have a lot of fun on the hike together.”
Render, a Jerusalemite whose daughter has cerebral palsy, said about 60 percent of the hikers are over 50.
“Many are personal friends who come back year after year,” he said. “But aside from the personal connection, hiking is a physically challenging activity that brings a tremendous feeling of achievement and can be enjoyed well over the age of 50. Together with the younger hikers, we feel we make a difference in the kids’ lives.”
Andrew Eisen, 52, from Chestnut Ridge, N.Y., said his past participation in a fundraising walk for AKIM, an organization that serves intellectually disabled Israeli children and adults, and more recent participation in ALYN’s Wheels of Love, has given him “an emotional high.”
“It’s wonderful working together with so many for the good of Israel as a people, and physically it is wonderful to challenge myself in ways that I enjoy. Were it not dressed in the clothing of assisting others, I would not find the time to do it,” he said.
Eisen, who lived in Israel from 1997 to 2004, said traveling to Israel for a fundraiser presents only one problem: “I suffer each time I have to leave.”
2015 fundraiser sampler:
- Hike for Hope: March 11-12
- Wheels of Love: Oct. 25-29
- Arava Institute and Hazon Israel Ride: Oct. 27-Nov. 3