When David Anfang first heard about Wheels of Love, described by Wikipedia as Israel’s largest multi-day, multi-route international charity cycling event, he immediately became intrigued by the tzedakah opportunity it presented. After doing further research into Jerusalem’s ALYN Hospital, one of the world’s leading specialists in pediatric rehabilitation and the recipient of the ride’s fundraising efforts, Dr. Anfang was determined to participate. He wanted to help, but he couldn’t have imagined how this desire would ultimately change his own life.
As Anfang soon learned, ALYN Hospital is much more than a rehab facility. It specializes in the diagnosis and rehabilitation of children from infancy through adolescence who suffer from physical disabilities, both congenital and acquired. The hospital treats children suffering from a variety of physical challenges, from conditions requiring short-term treatment to severe injuries or complex medical conditions requiring long-term rehabilitation.
ALYN is a nonprofit facility, and only a portion of each child’s care is covered by insurance or reimbursed by other agencies. It must, therefore, depend on donations from individuals and organizations. The funds raised annually by Wheels of Love, currently approaching its $3 million 2016 goal, cover nearly half of the hospital’s financial deficit. Approximately 70 percent of monies raised goes directly toward the cost of care for ALYN’s patients.
With the goal of helping ALYN Hospital firmly established, Anfang, from Livingston, New Jersey, registered for the event and immediately began training. Every Sunday he would ride with a group of like-minded cyclists as he prepared for what he expected to be the biggest physical challenge of his life. As he soon discovered, however, he had another, more personal, challenge to overcome first.
Feeling anxious about what lay ahead, Anfang sought clearance from a cardiologist before continuing with his training. Although he was completely symptom-free, a cardiac stress test revealed the need for medical intervention. Upon further investigation, it was determined that he had a 75 percent blockage in the main stem artery to his heart, frighteningly known as the “widow maker.” Open-heart surgery was scheduled immediately. Though he could not participate in the 2012 ride, Wheels of Love may, quite literally, have saved Anfang’s life.
The following year, he received a clean bill of health and traveled to Israel to ride for ALYN Hospital. Said Anfang, “It was an incredibly emotional five-day trip. It was a huge accomplishment, especially given my age and what I had been through the year before.”
He continued, “ALYN helps these kids function in society and not focus on their disabilities. They did some of the ride with us as part of their rehab, using recumbent hand-controlled bikes and special tandem bikes. The hospital staff is so dedicated, and treats not just Israeli Jews, but Arabs and Christians also. I was hooked—on the ride and on the cause,” adding, “The ride had changed my life, saved it, and I wanted to help change the lives of these kids.”
Anfang returned to participate in Wheels of Love in 2014 and 2015, and in preparation for the 2016 ride he formed a team to ride with him. Team Etz Chaim, the only shul-based team to participate this year, comprised Anfang, Paul Glick, Michael Mamet, Wayne Zuckerman, Michael “Mickey” Gottlieb and Rus Milov, all members of Congregation Etz Chaim in Livingston.
The first-timers were immediately struck by the enormity of the task ahead and knew they needed to do significant riding to prepare. “I rode several times a week, often for 35 miles at a time,” noted Glick.
After months of training, they embarked on what was to be a life-altering experience for each of them.
Wheels of Love is a five-day moving-caravan-style ride, in which approximately 700 people participated this year. It runs from Sunday to Thursday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day, with scheduled breaks, and each day the route changes as the riders continue their journey toward their ultimate destination, ALYN Hospital in Jerusalem. The ride has five groups, allowing cyclists of different abilities to participate. The groups ride slightly different routes, at varying elevations, each day, and Team Etz Chaim was part of the largest, second-most-difficult, group.
Each year the organizers change the routes, based partly on security concerns, and seasoned riders test them for each of the five groups. There are times when a route needs to be altered mid-ride due to security issues, as Anfang noted had occurred in 2014. “Because of the car rammings, they almost didn’t let us go on a particular road, but we did go in the end, bolstered by extra security.”
This year, the route took them within two miles of the Gaza border, and they were told that if they heard sirens they were to “jump off our bikes and lie on the ground or get into a ditch. Security is unbelievable,” Anfang said.
Wheels of Love takes participants through mountains, cities and towns, forcing road closures to allow the riders to pass through safely. They are protected throughout the ride by the constant presence of police, and there are also mechanics in support cars, ready to assist riders in the event of a bicycle malfunction. This year, Anfang got a flat tire and “they fixed it and I was back on the road in no time.”
Glick noted, “You would think that with this many riders there would be a lot of injuries, but people only get hurt when they’re being reckless. It’s organized chaos. There is an incredible amount of safety and support supplied, but you must know your limits.”
Eighty percent of participants are repeat riders and this year the organizers had to close registration early because there were so many new people who wanted to join.
For the first-timers on Team Etz Chaim, it was an experience they will never forget. “It’s emotional the first time you do it. When you finish, you’re exhausted and depleted and then you walk into the hospital and everyone is cheering and you’re just overwhelmed. It is truly a life-altering moment,” said Glick.
Mamet, who struggled on the final day of the ride, said that it was determination that got him through. “That last day I was completely spent and didn’t think I could continue, but I wanted to do that last leg into Jerusalem. I was determined to continue, so I kept pushing and was able to stay ahead of the bus.” The bus to which he referred followed the riders throughout the ride and picked up those who fell too far behind.
Regarding the physical challenge of this type of ride, Mamet said, “It’s not about speed. It’s all endurance. You tell yourself you just want to live through it. It’s very important, especially at our age, to pace yourself. You can’t stop the clock, but you can fight back.”
Glick added, “When you’re riding, you only look at the person ahead of you, never the road. As you’re going up hills you’re only thinking about your breathing.”
On the positive side, “The camaraderie is amazing,” said Mamet. “The ride, for us, was a male, middle-age, bonding, testosterone thing.”
This was not the case for everyone, however, as women also participated in the event, including religious women who rode with skirts over their bike pants. People of all ages came out to ride for ALYN Hospital but, according to the Team Etz Chaim members, most appeared to be between the ages of 35 and 75, an age demographic within which the team members fell.
Each rider was required to raise $2,500 and, noted Anfang, “some are so inspired that after the ride they donate above and beyond the required amount, out of pocket.” Added Mamet, “There is the $1,000 airfare, $950 registration fee and the time you need to take off work. It adds up.” However, it was easier to raise the $2,500 than the riders expected. “We split up the people we knew, and I asked some who had sponsored me in prior years to help out my teammates,” commented Anfang.
In their first year together, Team Etz Chaim has raised, as of this writing, $42,508 in support of ALYN Hospital, the third highest of any participating team. These men truly are changing lives, and the inspiration they gained and appreciation they felt from ALYN’s patients has changed theirs as well.
By Jill Kirsch
For more information about ALYN Hospital and Wheels of Love, visit http://www.alynactive.org/alyn-hospital or http://www.alynactive.org/Wheels-of-Love. To learn more about American Friends of ALYN Hospital, visit http://www.wolusa.org/site/TR?fr_id=1080&pg=entry. To donate through Team Etz Chaim, visit their team page at http://www.wolusa.org/site/TR/Events/General?pg=team&fr_id=1080&team_id=1234.