Life Is a Chai-Way for Jewish Biker Clubs
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.”
The religious makeup of the groups differs, too. Yidden on Wheels schedules official rides for Saturday, and has only one observant member who won’t ride on the Sabbath. Hillel’s Angels has a couple of religious riders, but “one of our most active members is also a member of the Christian Motorcycle Alliance — he’s a devout Christian,” Paul said of Michael Costa, who told the Washington Post that he joined the club to repair the “bad history between so-called Christianity and the Jews.” New York’s Chai Riders is one of the more observant groups: Its members meet once a month for dinner at a kosher restaurant, official rides are not held on Saturdays, and it counts among its former presidents David Himber, dean of students at Yeshiva University. Lauren Secular, activity coordinator and a longtime member of the Chai Riders, estimates that almost a third of the club are Sabbath-observant, yarmulke- and tzitzit-wearing Jews. As the well-known motorcycling mantra goes, Secular says, “I’d rather be riding my motorcycle thinking about God than sitting in church — [or synagogue] — thinking about my motorcycle.”
Secular has been riding motorbikes since the 1980s, when she used to hitchhike on the back of boys’ motorbikes around Long Island. “So I learned to ride — I thought, why do I need a guy for this?” She still has the red Harley-Davidson Sportster that she bought in 1984, but now she prefers to ride one of her more recent garage additions, which include a Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail, a Honda ST1300 and a Ducati ST2.
The Manhattanite has ridden cross-country from Seattle to New York, avoiding the highways, and recently returned from a motorcycling trip to the Pyrenees in France and Spain. In 2013, she rode her motorbike 31,000 miles — so she clearly doesn’t need the club to get her on the road. “We all belong to other clubs too, there are a thousand other clubs that we all dabble in,” she said. But in the Chai Riders she finds “a commonality… It’s not just about motorcycle riding.”
As with other branches of Jewish activity, many of these motorcycling clubs are struggling to sign up young, new members. The average member of Yidden on Wheels, for example, is about 58 years old, according to Prager, who rides a Yamaha FJR1300. Despite acquiring 20 new members following a membership drive this year, Yidden on Wheels — and its sister clubs — needs to attract “a newer generation of riders.”
Perhaps the problem is that many of these Jewish riders are also Jewish parents. While Gil Paul enjoys taking his children out riding on the back of his Harley, he doesn’t believe people should ride motorcycles without at least 10 years of driving experience. “I have no problem with [my children] getting a bike,” he said. “As long as they’re senior citizens.”
That’s partly because Paul doesn’t see the point in riding unless you do it properly. “You shouldn’t be allowed on a motorcycle if you’re not leaning,” he said. “Part of the joy of the riding experience is turning, taking those tight windy roads.” Navigating timeworn tunnels and twisting side streets — well, there’s something undeniably Jewish about that.
Lauren Davidson contributes frequently to the Forward.