In 2002, two years after his mother succumbed to multiple sclerosis at age 60, attorney Dan Siegel was diagnosed with the chronic, debilitating disease, too.
“It was a kick in the pants to really do something — not just to have a bunch of ideas that I never act on but to really get moving on them,” the 40-year-old father of two from Berkeley, Calif., said.
So he enrolled in Waves to Wine, a two-day bike ride from San Francisco to the Sonoma County town of Healdsburg to raise money for MS research. “It was very empowering. It felt good to do something,” he said.
In 2004, he brought along a dozen friends and relatives, dubbed the Mitzvah Milers, and they raised $10,000. In 2005, he invited members of his Conservative synagogue, Congregation Netivot Shalom, and 18 riders raised $23,000. And in 2006, his group of 54 riders from all over the Bay Area raised more than $50,000.
This year’s ride is September 29 and 30, and the Mitzvah Milers are saddled up and ready to pedal — Sunday only, of course, because of the Sabbath, but a 75-mile jaunt nonetheless. “We have 130 people right now on our e-mail list, and I guess we have 56 registered for Waves to Wine,” Siegel said. It is the fourth-largest among about 120 teams.
The club gained some visibility in May by participating in the Foothill Century — “The Only Kosher Ride in the West!” — sponsored by the South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale, Calif., near San Jose. That, plus good word-of-mouth through Bay Area synagogues, sparked rapid growth, Siegel said. The Mitzvah Milers’ monthly rides — begun in the summer of 2006, each running about 25 to 35 miles — now attract an average of 10 to 15 cyclists.
“It showed this could be a major Jewish community-building effort, as well. It’s becoming more of a club throughout the Bay Area, a Jewish cycling club. A lot of the riders aren’t doing Waves to Wine, but they like to do our monthly rides,” he said, noting that the club has Jews of every denomination. “Jews tend to be very separated and insular, and this seems a nice way to break that down and get all types together.”
Rabbi George Schlesinger, 57, of Santa Rosa’s Conservative Congregation Beth Ami rode Waves to Wine in 2006 and will do so again this month. “I have had friends and congregants over the years who have been stricken with MS, and I thought, ‘What a wonderful thing to do. Here’s something I can do physically beyond just writing a check,’” Schlesinger said.
Business consultant and Noah’s Bagels founder Noah Alper, 60, is a Mitzvah Miler, too. “Dan has done an unbelievable job in terms of broadening this thing out,” he said. “We’ve got a huge amount of people and are up in the top ranks of the fundraising for this MS charity, and it’s wonderful.”
Siegel is about to launch www.mitzvahmilers.com “to continue to add to the number of rides that the team does each month, the number of riders who take part.”
“I do kind of have a dream for the future of this, and that’s for this to be modeled in other cities. This definitely could be replicated elsewhere, in terms of Jewish cycling clubs all over the country,” he said. “I would be very happy if anyone’s interested… to help them start Mitzvah Milers teams elsewhere.”
Siegel said he’s fitter than ever and hasn’t had any health changes since his diagnosis except slight weakness in his left leg. “But the future is somewhat less predictable,” he said. “I’ve seen the whole gamut of what could be out there with this disease. I’m making the best of it while things are good, and hoping they stay that way.”
Waves to Wine fundraising will continue even after the event, through October.
Josh Richman covers politics and legal affairs for California’s Oakland Tribune and Bay Area News Group.