Biking across America with a purpose



Hazon spreads word of healthy clean, green living
Hazon spreads word of healthy clean, green living


In a car, you see the world but you aren’t touching it. When it rains, you roll up your windows and flick on the wipers.  When it is too cold or too hot, you turn on the seat warmer or use the AC.  When the speed limit drops because of a small town, you groan, and when you’re bored, you turn on the radio. Driving is typical.

But no day was typical on my cross-country bike tour; every day was drastically different. The weather, the road, the people, the elevation and topography were always changing around me and I felt everything. I felt the rain when it hit me in the face.  I smelled the gasoline when I biked on the interstate in Montana and I smelled the fresh cow manure when I biked through farms. I met a Jewish man in his 50s who, with the happiest smile on his face, told me that he had his bar mitzvah just last year.  And I also met a man who thought Washington, D.C,. was a fictional place on television. I hurt when I peddled up the Cascades and the Rockies and felt relieved when the speed limit dropped for a small town.  Some days were painful and some days were relaxing, but everyday was rewarding.  I experienced my surroundings every inch of the way.

This past summer, I spent nine weeks on the bike.  I traveled through 14 states – over 3,500 miles – and averaged about 67 miles a day. However, this was by no means a solo trip. Seven other cross-country riders and I biked with Hazon. Hazon is the largest Jewish environmental organization in North America.  We biked to promote alternative transportation and to promote healthy eating habits with natural foods. We spent nine weeks building up a little community and sharing it with everyone we met.  We, as a small pluralistic Jewish community, did not only tackle mountains – we tackled world problems.

On this Jewish bike trip there was one thing that was just as important as a bike – Shabbat.  Shabbat was literally a day of rest. It was a day to reflect on our past week and a day to look at what was in store for the next week. And it was also a day to spread our message – sustainability, Judaism and the environment – a message that I shared with all those communities that opened their doors and took us in. Now I wish to share this message with you.

What is sustainability?  This word is so often thrown around but hardly ever understood. All the way back in the Talmudic era Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel had a debate over humanity. They argued whether humanity was good for the world.  After much quarrel, they concluded that we are here already so we might as well try to make the most of it.

Making the most of life would be to fulfill a mission.  Looking back in Beresheit, God created the whole world before he created us. The common interpretation of that order is to explain that God was preparing the world so that it would be ready for us. This may be so, but I would like to offer an additional point. The Torah states that we were made in God’s image.  Perhaps this means that the world was prepared for us, not just for our use, but also for our role.  Perhaps our role – in God’s image – is to protect his creation.  Maybe we are here as caretakers, not just as takers.

That lesson, that additional interpretation, which does not contradict the original one, is what I took with me on the ride.  This is the message that I shared in all those Jewish communities that opened their doors for us.  That is what sustainability is, our role as caretakers.

Most importantly, I do not wish for you to think that I connected Judaism to the environment. Finding a connection is finding a similarity between two separate things.  Judaism and our relationship to the environment are one and the same. We were a Jewish community biking across America and we were really experiencing our surroundings. It was treating our Jewish obligation and our role as caretakers as one and the same.  On the other hand, being Jewish and not caring for the planet is like driving across America in a car.  It is broken separation.

I do not want to leave you wishing how wonderful it would be if you, too, could bike across America and maybe even feel that connection. Yes, I am young.  I am only 20. But my youth was not why I was able to do it.  I was the youngest cross-country rider.  The oldest rider was 66, and there were others in their 60s as well.  I, along with the other riders, was able to do it by conquering one mountain at a time and because of the hospitality of Jewish communities along the way.

So you can do it too.  You can feel the rain.  You can zoom down the Cascades after struggling to the top.  You can watch the wheat in the fields dance in the wind and you can dance, too. You can smell the fresh air. You can meet amazing people.  You can fix the separation that our interpretation has created. You can experience it all. My word of advice is to just keep counting down the miles until Shabbos!

Editor’s note: Ilan Levine ( is a member of the class of 2016 of Union College.