It’s a sight uncommon to Pittsburgh, much less rural America: three rabbis donned in beards, kippot, tzizit, and … bike gear.
Native Pittsburgher, Rabbi Dani Saul, along with former Pittsburgh Yeshiva Schools student-teacher Zalman Perlman and Shmuel Rothstein from Baltimore, are raising eyebrows, along with awareness for Friendship Circle International, as they bike 4,000 miles across the United States.
Calling their effort Bike 4 Friendship, the three roving rabbis — all 22 years old and newly graduated from the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, N.J. — have already garnered plenty of publicity, as well as more than $1,700 for the organization that brings friendship and inclusion into the lives of children with special needs.
The trek was the brainchild of Perlman, who hails from California; the idea came to him one day while eating some pizza. What started as a joke, according to Saul, blossomed into an idea to help kids with special needs. Perlman soon enlisted Saul and Rothstein to come along for the ride, and proposed the idea to Friendship Circle.
“On a national scale, this is our biggest event yet,” said Rabbi Bentzion Groner, director of Friendship Circle International. The organization, begun in Detroit in 1994, pairs local teenage volunteers with children who have special needs. Together, they participate in weekly programs such as sports night, dance class, bowling and Jewish events.
There are currently 82 chapters of Friendship Circle, including Pittsburgh, worldwide, and over 11,000 teenage volunteers.
The rabbis’ bicycle trek, which began about two weeks ago in New York City’s Central Park, will continue along the East Coast down to Georgia, then west to Louisiana, through Texas, and will conclude in Los Angeles on Aug. 22.
“The route is like a smiley face across America,” Saul said.
Saul is the son of Charles Saul, a Pittsburgh attorney and member of the Chronicle’s board of trustees.
They are meeting some interesting people along the way, he added, and word of the “biking rabbis” is spreading quickly.
“Even walking on the street in our yamulkes, people notice us, and we can spread the word about Friendship Circle,” Saul told the Chronicle, speaking from a stop in North Carolina. “In Wilmington, Del., people were coming out to see the ‘biking rabbis.’ A lot of time, people are scared of rabbis, but they see we are approachable, and biking across America. We’re not so scary.”
Their experiences so far have been eclectic. They were able to meet the only Jew in Bedford, Va., and received compliments on their kippas from a rural antique dealer who happened to be very pro-Israel, and had visited the Jewish state.
The ride is a “good way to bridge between our studies and going out to the real world,” Saul said.
A lot of planning went into the trip. The three young men began training about 10 months ago, preparing for such challenges as riding over the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. They are accompanied by a support vehicle that transports their pots and pans so they can cook their kosher meals on the go, and they have their cheese and meat shipped to different post office boxes, or Chabad rabbis, along the way.
They are not backpacking, said Saul, but are sleeping in hotels and motels. On Shabbat, they are hosted by rabbis.
As they travel, they are greeted by local mayors, and were even given a proclamation by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who proclaimed July 6, 2011, as Bike 4 Friendship Day.
“The media coverage has been great,” said Friendship Circle’s Groner. “When they meet with the mayors, the media comes out. Then people read about the ride in the papers, and learn about Friendship Circle. They are getting the word out.”
The monetary goal of the ride is to have people pledge a total of $16,000, or $4 per mile. Contributors donate on the rabbis’ website, bike4friendship.com.
Bike 4 Friendship has also generated a lot of buzz on various social media sites, according to Groner.
“This trip is having a bigger impact than we ever imagined,” Groner said. “The excitement is beyond our expectations.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)