When Gil Paul took up the motorbike around 10 years ago, he did a half-hearted Internet search for other Jewish motorcyclists. “I just didn’t imagine that there were Jews that rode,” he said. “As luck would have it, I found the Hillel’s Angels.”
Call it luck — mazel, perhaps — but it turns out that there are dozens of Jewish motorcycle clubs across North America. As Paul, who rides a blue 2006 Harley-Davidson Road Glide, put it, “I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong.”
Hillel’s Angels caters to leather-clad Semites in the New Jersey area. There are also the Chai Riders of New York, the Jews on Twos of South Carolina, the Rebbe’s Riders of Arizona, the Wandering Twos of Missouri, and the Chaiway Riders of Illinois among the 40 or so clubs that unite under the global umbrella organization, the Jewish Motorcyclists Alliance.
Many of these clubs’ members belong to several riding groups, both Jewish and non-Jewish, but sometimes you just can’t beat a shmooze on twos.
“It’s the camaraderie,” said Betsy Ahrens, president of the JMA and a member of Washington D.C.’s The Tribe, who rides an 1100 Yamaha V-Star. Ahrens was raised Catholic but converted to Judaism after dating a Jewish biker piqued her interest. “I’m passionate about my Judaism first and motorcycling second. We all have to work together for a common goal, and that goal is Judaism and safe motorcycling and to have a lot of fun.”
According to JMA folklore, the first Jewish motorcycling clubs started popping up in the early 1990s in the Tri-State area. In 1995, a group of Jewish bikers from Toronto decided to ride together to Americade, a yearly motorcycle rally in upstate New York. They called themselves Yidden on Wheels, which is now the oldest and largest official Jewish motorcycle club in North America, according to its president, Gadi Prager.
As groups of Jews are wont to do, the clubs stuck mostly to themselves and soon adopted their own rules and charters. It wasn’t until 2004 that a cross-party gathering was arranged, when some 100 people and 69 motorbikes attended a meet and greet at Mike’s Famous Harley-Davidson in Delaware. That event led to the formation of the JMA and birthed the idea of an official ride in memory of the Holocaust: a “Ride to Remember” to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps. That anniversary has now reached its 70th year, and the Ride to Remember its 10th. In that decade, Jewish motorcyclists have raised about $400,000 for Holocaust-related charities.
In June, about 250 people on 200 bikes rode through Oswego, New York, for 2014’s Ride to Remember. Hillel’s Angels, who organized this year’s rally, chose Oswego’s Fort Ontario because it was the only place in the United States that accepted refugees during World War II. About 100 people who sailed on the Henry Gibbons in 1944 are still alive, and several attended the ride.
It’s not all smooth riding in Jewish motorcycling, however. “In terms of politicizing — right wing, left wing, what the JMA and the Ride to Remember stand for — there’s been some controversy in the last few years,” one biker told the Forward. “Some people consider the Jewish motorcyclists as getting together just for a good old shmooze fest, while others want something a little more substantive than just getting together and slapping each other on the back.”