by Leslie Niren

I was surrounded by lush green rolling hills, covered with tall magnificent trees.  My bike blazed along a dirt path lined by an array of colorful flowers, scattered among the greenery. Cows grazed peacefully to my left, and to my right a bold patch of red and orange birds-of-paradise glistened in the sunlight. I drank in the bold fragrance of springtime, and the fresh mountain air filled my soul. With each pedal stoke, I became more intoxicated with the sounds and sights of nature all around me. If I close my eyes for a moment now, I can still see the sweeping views of the Mediterranean, taste the sweetness of the grapefruit I picked from the tree, and hear the sound of children singing as they cheered us across the finish line.

This past March, I was proud to take part in Riding for Reform, an annual bike ride that covered roughly two hundred miles in Israel over five incredible days. Our route began in the Carmel Mountains, not far from the location of the tragic forest fire last year, and it ended in the town of Mevasseret Zion, outside of Jerusalem. The ride is a challenging mix of on-road and off-road mountain biking that highlights Israel’s unique and eclectic terrain. From sandy beaches to grassy fields, tree-filled forests to citrus groves, muddy swamps to water crossings, and paved cities to rocky paths, we covered it all! R4R is a fundraiser for the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ). The funds raised help to support and strengthen 40 congregations and prayer groups across Israel, in addition to establishing new congregations in geographic locations where there is no Reform presence.

Riding4Reform: Building a Holy Community Through Cycling Participants ranged from American clergy, congregants, and Hebrew Union College students, to Israelis on mechinah (the gap year between high school and the army), and leaders of the IMPJ. As the ride began, we were a group of relative strangers; by the end of the five days, we had built a kehilah kedoshah, a holy community, through prayer and sharing, supporting and encouraging one another. Along the way, we visited Israeli Reform communities and heard from lay leaders and rabbis about their exciting programs.

For me, this bike ride was a transformative experience that reached far beyond supporting Reform Judaism in Israel or connecting with the land in a new and meaningful way. This exhilarating trip was a physical, mental, emotional and spiritual challenge.  It woke me to possibilities that I never could have never imagined. I felt prayerful, hopeful and inspired.  I felt accomplished and proud that I rose to challenges and succeeded. There were many moments when I was riding alone along the trail, feeling a complete sense of oneness with nature around me. The physical and the spiritual came together in a way I had never before experienced. My legs were pedaling, but my awareness had entered another plane.

This kinesthetic approach to personal renewal has become a key element in maintaining my health, as well as an important part of my preparation to serve in the cantorate. As I think about the intense and consuming nature of our work as k’lei kodesh, I am increasingly aware of the importance of finding balance in my life. Part of that balance is carving out time to engage in activities that promote self-rejuvenation. Giving myself physical challenges consistently rises to the top of that list for me.  When my health and fitness are addressed, I feel more centered and better able to be fully immersed in the cantorial work about which I am so passionate.

After my powerful experience on last year’s ride, I am now committed to helping the IMPJ promote this activity in North America as an incredibly growthful experience for its participants. Next year’s Ride for Reform (March 10-14, 2013) will be the 10th anniversary of the event! For the first time ever, R4R is offering three different tracks: challenging cycling, light cycling, and hiking. I plan to be there. If you would like more information about R4R or want to hear more about the experience, check out the website or e-mail me.

Leslie Niren is a fifth-year cantorial student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She is the student cantor at Temple Emanu-El of Dallas, Texas.   

Originally posted on the American Conference of Cantors’ website