Original article by Rabbi Seth D. Gordon May 21, 2019
JMA is for me, and I am sure for you, a new addition to the Jewish acronym dictionary. It stands for Jewish Motorcycle Alliance, and on Friday, May 17, I joined 150 Jewish bikers for a breakfast, 2-hour ride, and a concluding lunch at the Jewish Federation building with a program at the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center. This was just one day of the JMA program that began on Thursday and ended on Sunday.
It was impressive from the start. About 150 motorcycles were parked in front of Temple Israel. The breakfast was intentionally kosher as were nearly all the meals, and Shabbat services were part of the program. It was primarily because of the respect that fellow biker Steve Aroesty had for Torah, and had instituted into the program, that I decided to take part. I am very glad I did.
Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect. How many would be there? How old would the bikers be and what would they look like and be like? As I observed the riders entering the breakfast area, they looked even older than me -- grey-haired or hair-challenged (or both), a number with ponytails or long hair flowing backwards -- in biker clothing. ( About 10% were women, some who rode on the backseat.) The 1960’s! Back to the Future!
Standing near their bikes they might have been thought of as Hell’s Angels, but their patches gave them away. Many wore Israeli flags, or Magen Davids, or Jewish words (“Never Again”-- some in Hebrew). This was a decidedly proud Jewish group.
This was JMA’s annual ride. Local groups rode in from Chicago and Cleveland, and from Florida, New York, and even from Arizona and California, and a few came in from Israel (with rented bikes). Many were proudly wearing their local club jackets, shirts, and/or patches. The St Louis event raised money for our Holocaust Museum and Learning Center.
Steve had asked me to say a few opening words. I said that given that Jews comprise ¼ of 1% of the world’s population, if not for the fact that I could now see that I was with 150 others, Jewish motorcyclists were probably the world’s smallest group -- except for “Rabbi motorcyclists.” I asked how many knew of rabbis who rode and a few hands shot up. Still a very small group.
I told them that when we were in Paris last year, as we were standing outside a kosher restaurant area, a Lubavitcher with a motorcycle was present. (He later took me to see the very place where Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneerson had davened when he lived in Paris.) I also told them anecdotes about my two previous ownerships of motorcycles -- in Israel in 1980-82 to get around Jerusalem for classes, and in Bethpage, NY in 2006 -- and a crossing of the George Washington Bridge that persuaded me to cancel my summer cross country trip with my son, Joshua.
I closed with something that especially defined us -- that each of us had heard others tell us how stupid or crazy we were for doing this dangerous thing. But we ride to enjoy God’s blessings: to see the sights, smell the smells, and feel the breeze. But acknowledging that motorcycle riding has an added element of risk, I closed with this prayer, my reworking of the
Lord God, God of our ancestors,
Hear our prayer:
Guide us safely to our destinations
Remove every dangerous obstacle on our paths
Keep us away from every careless driver
Enable us to enjoy our ride -- the sights, sounds, smells, and breezes,
for You created this world for our benefit
May we come back to our loved ones, families, and communities
with Shalom of body, Shalom of mind, and Shalom of soul.
ברוך אתה ה׳ שומע תפילה -- Praised be You our God, who hears our prayer.
The ride was excellent! We saw two hours’ worth of West County’s topography, and with a funeral-like escort of three motorcyles, the ride was virtually stopless -- speeds between 25-45 MPH -- fluid. The day was beautiful and the expected breeze offset any slightly warm temperature.
Now 150 people is not a lot for a Cardinals' game, but traveling through neighborhoods on main streets such as Ladue, many cars waited for us as we motored through the red lights and stop signs, and many pedestrians waved to us. It was incredible.
The only significant difference was that many, long-time experienced riders, who regularly take long trips, were in cruisers: big, wide, well-equipped bikes; while I rode my modest Kawasaki 650 street bike. The only minor negative for me was that, in St Louis, I have not ridden more than a 30 minutes at a time. Halfway through, my shoulders and tush ached. But when we reached the Federation Building, a cheering crowd was there to greet us -- mainly employees, I think -- and, a surprise to me, my wife, Marian, as well. That, too, was great.
I spoke to a few people as we ate lunch. One woman told me that she rode from California by herself (partly) and will return by herself. She is 74!! I was astonished and impressed. I asked if she was always physically fit. She told me that she used to be very overweight and smoke heavily, and that she had a back operation just a few years ago. Incredible.
In August the JMA is scheduled to ride and attend services at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. The JMA is more than a Jewish Motorcycle Alliance. May they come back to their loved ones, families, and communities with Shalom of body, Shalom of mind, and Shalom of soul.