Riding Chai: The Jewish Motorcyclists Alliance Takes a Ride to Remember
Hillel’s Angels. The Chai Riders. Yidden On Wheels. The Sons of Abraham.
If these phrases read like the names of Jewish biker clubs, it’s because that’s precisely what they are. These clubs, and 32 others, are part the Jewish Motorcyclists Alliance—an umbrella organization that seeks to provide a home for the few individuals at the intersection of these two rarified subgroups. “Jews have such camaraderie, even without the motorcycles,” says Betsy Ahrens, a past president of JMA. “With the motorcycles, it just bonds it 1,000 percent.”
Around 200 of these Jewish motorcyclists will converge this weekend at JMA’s 13th annual Ride to Remember (R2R) in Rhode Island. The R2R serves both as an opportunity for Jewish bike enthusiasts to ride together and as a fundraising platform for organizations working in Holocaust education. This year’s beneficiary will be the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center in Providence.
Les Green, who lives near Helen, Georgia, first found the JMA around ten years ago. “We’d been up here a year or so, I had a motorcycle and I said, ‘Well, there’s got to be other Jews riding!’” says Green. “I started looking around on the internet, and I saw the JMA. And I called them, and they told me to check Atlanta.”
Atlanta is home to the Sabra Riders, which was founded in 2000 and has around 50 active members, according to their website. In addition to the R2R, the Sabras participate in two local charitable rides: the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation’s “Ride for Kids” and the American Diabetes Association’s “Ride to Live.” According to their site, the Sabras ride most Sunday mornings, often as much as 300 miles. Their logo is a winged star of David.
JMA members ride in full biker regalia, but their “colors” (insignia expressing members’ club affiliations on vest patches) frequently include Hebrew script and stars of David.
Ahrens, who turned 70 last month and is still going strong on her 1100 Yamaha V-Star, says it’s often difficult for outsiders to wrap their minds around the combination. “Yeah, we stun a few people when we ride through,” she says. “Everybody is just taken aback. When I was starting a club in South Carolina, Shalom and Chrome, one of the members said to me, ‘Betsy, will you please call my mother-in-law and tell her I’m not the only Jew who rides a motorcycle?’”
JMA can trace its history back to October 3, 2004, when five Jewish motorcycle clubs gathered for the first time at Mike’s Famous Harley-Davidson in Delaware. Soon after, Jeff Mustard of South Florida’s King David Bikers organized the first R2R in Washington, DC to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation from the Nazi concentration camps. The ride attracted around 151 bikes and close to 200 attendees, according to JMA’s website.
The next year, members of the newly formalized JMA created an organizing committee for the second R2R, this one to benefit the Paper Clip Project in Whitwell, Tennessee. The Paper Clip Project, undertaken by a small Appalachian school comprised entirely of white Christian students, is a well-known effort to collect six million paper clips to commemorate the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. This second R2R honored the students’ efforts by raising $35,000 for the school.
And so it continued: Recent R2Rs have taken place in Oswego, Birmingham and Nashville. Ahrens says that every R2R follows a similar pattern, starting with those who arrive early on Thursday. “We’ll go out to breakfast, and then everybody waits to see who’s going to order bacon first,” she says. “The waitress will come and say, ‘Are you ready?’ And the first person will say, ‘No, get him,’ then the next person will say, ‘No, get him,’ and it goes all around the table, until when one person finally does order bacon or sausage everybody else will too.’”
That evening, as bikers trickle in from around the country, the R2R will formally kick off with a meet and greet. They’ll meet at the Rhode Island Harley-Davidson dealership Friday and take an organized two-hour ride together through the countryside. They’ll meet at the Jewish Community Center for lunch, get a private tour of the historic Touro Synagogue and get Shabbat dinner. Saturday will involve more rides and tours, and the R2R will conclude with a farewell feast.
Bikers are often seen as politically conservative, and Jews are often seen as politically liberal. So how do Jewish bikers vote? “We support Israel, but we don’t talk about politics,” says Ahrens. “We go outside and kick tires and talk about motorcycles, smoke cigars and drink scotch.” Ahrens says that the big topic of conversation this weekend, rather than President Donald Trump, will likely be the recent Harley-Davidson recall of 57,000 bikes. “Some will argue that they shouldn’t have recalled it and others will say yes they should’ve, cause that oil leak, you know what that oil leak does,” says Ahrens. “And that’s what the topic of conversation will be.”
Ahrens hopes to raise nearly $40,000 for the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center. According to the R2R website, the funds will be used to preserve eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust through interactive holographic interviews with survivors. The Center hopes to create a Jewish Motorcyclists Alliance Endowment, the interest from which would fund the rental of a Survivor Hologram.
If all this sounds like an exhausting event to plan, Ahrens isn’t daunted.
“Are you kidding me?” she says. “I’m already starting on next year’s.”