Raising eyebrows

Raising eyebrows

SAN FRANCISCO — It’s a warm Sunday afternoon in the Berkeley hills, and if you look west from the road that abuts Tilden Park, the San Francisco skyline is about as clear as it gets. As with most nice days, the park is full of people — kids riding the merry-go-round, couples hiking around the lake. And then, against the soft whisper of the wind through the trees, comes the deafening sound of motorcycle engines.

At first glance, the nine riders pulling off at the scenic overlook could be part of any motorcycle gang: bandanas, unruly beards, zippered black leather jackets. That is, until you take a closer look.

From the Star of David patches affixed prominently at the centers of their backs to the Israeli flag pins on their lapels, the shofar charms circling their necks and the mezuzahs on the stems of their bikes, it starts to become clear that this isn’t your average bike club.

This is the RCMC — the Ridin’ Chai Motorcycle Club of Northern California.

Its members are used to raising some eyebrows.

“We mostly get a lot of, you know, ‘Jews ride bikes?!’ ” says Shoshana Bilunos, the club’s president and co-founder, aping an astonished face for emphasis. “And we just go, ‘Yep, we do.’ ”

The Ridin’ Chai Motorcycle Club has 53 members — not bad for a 3-year-old group, although Bilunos says about half that number are active. Each of their semimonthly rides includes a dozen or so riders, although the number of participants sometimes dips to seven or eight.

And there are plenty more like them. Though it’s the only officially recognized Jewish bike group in California, Ridin’ Chai is one of 42 clubs worldwide that belong to the Jewish Motorcyclists Alliance, a 7-year-old umbrella group with outposts in Canada, South Africa, the United Kingdom, Australia and Israel. Members of the many clubs come together each year to shmooze and talk shop (be it Hebrew lessons or Harley Davidson mechanics) at the JMA’s annual spring Ride to Remember.

“There’s a camaraderie to it,” says Robby Brodsky, a 58-year-old San Jose resident who helped found Ridin’ Chai. “It’s the sense that you have something in common with these people.”

A badge on Brodsky’s jacket reads “Vice President,” but he waves the title off. “I’m more like the welcoming committee.”

From the looks of the people that came out for a recent ride — mostly regulars, with two new members — everyone feels pretty welcome already. Good-natured insults and off-color jokes fly; getting everyone to stand together and hold still for a photo is a challenge. They start up again as soon as the shutter clicks, ruining each other’s punch lines.

“Did you hear the one about the guy who goes into a Chinese restaurant, sits down and orders pork? And the rabbi’s sitting right there, not saying anything …” begins one.

“But he’s watching the whole time, right?” interjects another. “And the guy argues it’s kosher anyway because of rabbinical supervision?”

In 2007, Bilunos was turning 50. She decided to buy herself a motorcycle as a birthday present.

“It was something I’d always wanted to do,” says the petite 54-year-old, a resident of Lincoln, 25 miles northeast of Sacramento. She worked many years as the clinical director of Jewish Family Service in the state capital. “So for my 50th birthday, I said, OK, I’ll just take the class.”

A two-day safety course is required to ride a motorcycle in California. Bilunos went to Day 1, visited a Harley shop that night and bought herself a gleaming new motorcycle.

“I went back the second day for the road test and said, ‘You guys better pass me because I just bought my bike,’ ” she recalls. “They said, ‘Gimme a break. You didn’t buy a bike.’ No one does that! But I did. It was ready for me to pick up before I even had a permit to ride.”

Not long after Bilunos began to ride regularly, she had the idea to combine her commitment to the Jewish community with her newfound love for motorcycles. As someone with a background in fundraising, she initially thought organizing rides could be a great way to raise money for Jewish groups that were hurting.

“[Motorcycle] clubs raise a ton of money,” she says. “And I was just looking at all the JCCs, the JFSes, these community organizations that traditionally rely on grant money that was drying up … and I thought, what better way to help the Jewish community?”

The Internet brought her to the Jewish Motorcycle Alliance, which soon connected her with Brodsky, a veteran rider who also had stumbled upon the international organization and expressed interest in starting a local group.

The first meeting of what would become Ridin’ Chai took place in the spring of 2008 at the Contra Costa JCC in Walnut Creek.

Coming from Sacramento, San Jose, Stockton, Half Moon Bay and as far away as Yosemite, members began meeting up for semi-regular rides — sometimes through the Santa Cruz Mountains, sometimes inland. They’d have breakfast at a local diner, then take off for the day, with members occasionally spending the night at others’ homes if theirs were too far to get back to in an evening’s time.

Through the Internet and word of mouth, membership grew quickly, and the group settled on a mission statement and logo for its official patch — both requirements for joining JMA. Aside from all the other Judaica dangling from their jackets and bikes, the patch is perhaps what prevents members from ever being mistaken for just another motorcycle club.

As with most groups of Jews, opinions on the design and appropriate size for the patch often were loud and contradictory. But in the end the members were pretty pleased with the result.

Paying homage to both the American and Israeli flags, the patch on the back of each member’s jacket features a Star of David filled in with stars and stripes, flanked by the inimitable slogan “Shtup it, let’s ride.”

As to demographics, there are some constants among the regulars. Most are 50 and over, with many hovering around 60 and a few in their early 70s. Many have adult children and perhaps a young grandchild or two. A few 30-something riders are starting to come along these days, most of them the children of older riders.

On the whole, the group is overwhelmingly male-dominated — in numbers, that is, as no one would deny that the barely 5-foot Bilunos (in her shades, Harley earrings, shofar necklace and black-and-white bandana) is the leader. They come from a range of professional careers, though in an apt reflection of a certain stereotype, there’s probably a higher percentage of doctors, dentists and lawyers in Ridin’ Chai than in a sampling of riders at your average motorcycle rally.

“There was a time when we got a new member it was, ‘Oh, great, another doctor,’ ” says Al Aronofsky, better known as “Bear Al” or sometimes just “Bear.”

A big man with a long white beard and hearty laugh, Aronosfky looks every bit the rough-and-tumble character you’d find at your local biker bar. He’s also among the most observant Jewishly.

A member of both Chabad of Stockton and a Reform synagogue three miles away, Temple Israel, Aronofsky taught religious school for 18 years and now is enrolled in a distance-learning program to receive his rabbinical ordination from a school in New York.

At home in Stockton, he rides his bike to and from services a few times a week — “except on Shabbat,” he says.

“Right,” chimes in Stuart Sorkin, an original member, with a light elbow to the ribs. “Then you push it.”

Sorkin, who taught religious school at Congregation Beth Sholom in Sacramento for many years, says it might not be traditional for religious Jews to ride motorcycles — but people get used to it.

“When I was teaching 10-, 11-, 12-year-olds, it actually helped!” he says with a laugh. “It offset the white hair, made me a little cooler, I think.”

Sorkin also emphasized that being Jewish was an important point of connection for all members of the group, regardless of the varying levels of observance.

“There are a lot of motorcycle-specific clubs —Yamaha, hogs, what have you,” he says. “We’re more social than bike-focused, I’d say. We’re not bikers that happen to be Jewish, we’re Jews who are also bikers. And we’re pretty nondiscriminatory.”

“Except to each other,” Aronofsky adds with a laugh.

One original member who commands respect is Bob Pave, 71, a Holocaust survivor. Born in Warsaw just before World War II, he came to the United States with his mother in 1944 as part of a trade between the Nazis and the U.S. government for Germans living in the U.S.

“We can thank Heinrich Himmler for that,” says Pave, adding that he can speak Polish “like a 5-year-old,” which is how old he was when his family left Poland.

While he doesn’t speak about his past often, Pave is active in the Bay Area’s pro-Israel community, including the Israel Action Network and StandWithUs/S.F. Voice for Israel.

He’s even found a way to put his bike to use with his passion for the Jewish state.

“A couple of years ago there was a demonstration in San Francisco by the pro-Palestinians against Israel and against Jews,” he recalls. “So Robby [Brodsky] and I got in touch and we rode our motorcycles in with Israeli flags … I think we had eight riders, and people from StandWithUs came and rode on the backs of our motorcycles.”

“We rode around them for a little while … the pro-Palestinians had nothing to say.”

While most members agree the club wouldn’t be possible without the Internet (“There was no way we all would have found each other,” Aronofsky says), there are a few drawbacks to being such a spread-out community: It’s hard to get everyone in the same place very often, so they don’t ride as often — or in as big of a group — as they’d like to.

The next big ride is a JMA meet-and-greet in Durango, Colo., in August. The night before departing, a group of Ridin’ Chai riders will probably sleep over at Bilunos’ house to get an early start.

The club’s main goal is to increase numbers and establish more regular events. Bilunos has been talking to JMA officials about plans for a commemerative “6 million mile ride,” with riders around the world logging their mileage in hopes of reaching an aggregate total of 6 million to honor Holocaust victims and survivors.

For the time being, club members are content just to be in each other’s presence, taking in the scenery of Northern California whenever possible, especially during the spring and summer months.

“When we head out there, it’s partly the ride and it’s partly the company,” says one of the group’s riders, a 64-year-old attorney, recounting a recent snowball fight on a ride over the Sonora Pass. “For a bunch of old guys, we manage to have a lot of fun.”

Listening to them speak, many members also take a noticeable delight in the inherent rebellion of upending expectations — of what people in their 60s “should” be doing, of how white-collar professionals spend their retirement, of how Jews are “supposed” to get their kicks.

“For us older guys, growing up, we always heard ‘You gotta be a doctor or a lawyer,’ ” Aronofsky says. “Nobody was ever a cop or a biker because those were dangerous things. Good Jewish boys didn’t do those things, especially when, for our parents’ generation, it was about trying to blend in.”

Of course, there’s something to be said for having attorneys in your midst at all times.

“It’s an old joke,” Brodsky says. “But if we ever have any trouble with the Hell’s Angels, we’ll just sue ’em.”