By Steven Franklin, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Recently it was my privilege to participate in the 2018 Israel Bike Ride organized by Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF), an organization dedicated to improving the well-being of IDF soldiers both during and after their military service. I’d attended FIDF Chicago events in the past and have two long-ago lone soldiers in the family. My enthusiasm was stoked by a conversation with FIDF regional staffers Tamir Oppenheim and Michelle Cohen about the three previous FIDF Israel rides. I decided that this would be my year to take part and began preparing.
Our hardy and spirited group assembled near the beach in Tel Aviv on a beautiful Shabbat afternoon. We were about three dozen riders, men and women ranging in age from early 30s to a very spry 81, mostly but not exclusively Jewish, hailing from across the US as well as from Canada and Brazil. Tamir and Michelle welcomed us warmly and introduced our expert local team of guides. That evening at our hotel, the guides helped us set up the bicycles, uncrating them for those who had shipped bikes from home and readying high quality rentals for the rest of us, and early the following morning we set off from Israel’s northern tip at the border with Lebanon. In the days following, we rode from Israel’s highest elevation, atop Mt Hermon in the Golan, to the lowest point on earth (Ein Boqeq along the Dead Sea), ending in the Judean hills outside Jerusalem.
Ultimately the group traversed more than 250 miles of beautiful (and hilly!) country in the Galil, Golan, Negev and the Center. (In my case the total ride was more like 200 miles as one day I shamelessly opted for the alternative of a sun-soaked float on the Dead Sea and luxurious turn in the spa!)
Riding alongside and frequently ahead of us, five severely wounded IDF veterans and reservists humbled us with their determination and physical strength. Off the road, we learned from them how they had found the steel to overcome terrible battle injuries and to rebuild their lives with purpose and accomplishment in family, further service and careers.
A highlight of the trip was meeting ten IDF veterans who are pursuing college and university degrees made possible by FIDF IMPACT! Scholarships. The IMPACT! program is one of FIDF’s most popular initiatives, enabling donors abroad to underwrite four-year higher education scholarships for IDF combat and combat support veterans in need. Often those sponsors and scholarship recipients develop lasting friendships, and at our group’s concluding dinner, after briefly outlining their backgrounds and aspirations, these ten scholarship winners each movingly expressed gratitude and affection directly to the members of our group personally underwriting their studies.
In Israel, appreciation is widespread for all FIDF is doing to serve soldiers and the families of the wounded and fallen. There the reality is that “the army” is nearly everyone’s child, brother, sister, dearest friend. Most adults have served themselves, and everyone holds a fallen soldier or soldiers deep in his or her heart. In the IDF, lone soldiers are not only those coming from the US, Canada and elsewhere, but also native Israelis (ultra-Orthodox Jews, Arabs and Druze) whose families have rejected them for their choice to serve. FIDF provides homes and other assistance to lone soldiers, rehabilitation and other assistance to the wounded, care and attention to families of the fallen, and much, much more.
On this trip, I felt it a genuine honor to wear FIDF’s logo on my cap and jersey. I’m proud to have been part of this year’s FIDF Israel Ride and invite everyone reading this note to look into the organization and its many programs. Consider coming on next year’s ride too, if you’re ready for it!
Steven Franklin is former Great Lakes region director for American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and a past president of Temple Beth Israel in Skokie. He is a Chartered Financial Analyst.