Tuesday, August 9, 2011
Who Needs Hell’s Angels When You’ve Got the Rebbe’s Riders?
A few days before Passover last April, a stream of RVs decorated with Hebrew letters rolled down Eastern Parkway in the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn. The caravan of 61 vehicles was not a trailer park gone rogue, but an annual parade of the so-called Mitzvah Tanks that the Chabad-Lubavitch movement uses to encourage Jews toward religious observance. This year, though, the tanks were flanked by the the newest and perhaps unlikeliest members of Chabad outreach, a group of Hasidic and Orthodox motorcyclists called Rebbe’s Riders.
Using a blend of horsepower and religious traditions, the members of Rebbe’s Riders are repurposing the biker gang for the fervently Orthodox set. While motorcycles may appear to be an odd choice for religious outreach, founder Jonah Halper was inspired by the followers of Chabad-Lubavitch. The 30-year-old Halper started Rebbe’s Riders with the hope of persuading unobservant Jews to “get closer to Judaism and closer to practice.”
Although the Chabad-Lubavitch movement has a relatively small number of followers, with the best reported estimates counting approximately 200,000 Lubavitchers globally, the reach of the movement is expansive. Under the leadership of the late rebbe, Menachem M. Schneerson, the global outreach of Chabad-Lubavitch grew exponentially during the last half-century, resulting in the opening of more than 4,000 Chabad houses.
The Chabad houses are run by young rabbis and their wives and are designed as outposts of Jewish culture where even unobservant Jews can get a kosher meal or be exposed to Jewish traditions. While Schneerson died in 1994, the followers of Chabad-Lubavitch continue to view Schneerson as their leader and practice outreach in the name of the rebbe. Halper says that the different Chabad houses will serve as the home base for the various chapters of Rebbe’s Riders.
Although Halper, an Orthodox Jew, is not a follower of Chabad-Lubavitch, he describes his admiration for the Hasidic group as the impetus behind Rebbe’s Riders. “It’s not affiliated in any official capacity, but rather it’s in the spirit of Chabad,” said Halper, who has had friends and family influenced by it. “I realized that this is the key to their success. They don’t treat Judaism as if it’s reserved for the select few.”
This desire to engage with all Jews, whether practicing or not, in the hopes inspiring them to become more observant is a major goal for the followers of Chabad-Lubavitch. Sue Fishkoff, a journalist and author of The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch, describes their objective in religious terms. “They’re trying to put Jews in touch with what we call the ‘pintele yid,’ the spark that they see inside every Jew that ties him or her to Jewish tradition,” said Fishkoff. “However they can awaken that spark, they will try to do it.”
This desire to inspire a religious awakening is echoed by Halper and by the Rebbe’s Riders website, which encourages people to join and start “Finding the Sparks on the Road.”
While a biker gang may seem an unlikely entry point for a secular Jewish person to turn observant, Halper found the niche an asset. Halper wanted to connect to people through an activity that was not primarily for religion but for amusement. In fact, with their bushy beards and yarmulkes hidden under their helmets, the members of Rebbe’s Riders can look like any other motorcycle group out for a joy ride.
The riders’ ability to be characterized by both their riding skills and their faith was key to Halper. “Any marketing person will tell you it’s very important to connect with people where they’re at,” said Halper. He hopes, for example, that riders will end a road trip by enjoying some kosher delicacies or by discussing the Torah over a meal.
Since the chapters of Rebbe’s Riders are set up through different Chabad Houses, Halper expects each chapter to reflect the needs of its house. The possible activities include having groups of riders come together to do volunteer work, planning a ride for charity, and hosting a weekly ride that encourages a discussion about religion.
Halper says his ideal outing means letting riders “do what they love to do most, which is riding and use that as a platform for Jewish learning, thought and practice.” This use of community in order to aid religious outreach is a trademark of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. As Fishkoff explains, “It’s directed at Jews, they should have a good time with other Jews, and then want to be closer to the Jewish community.”
For Eli Zisman, the head of the Rebbe’s Riders in upstate New York and a follower of Chabad-Lubavitch, using his love of riding to promote Judaism is a necessary part of his religious duty. “In Chabad you have to go with what’s popular and try and use any way possible—that’s allowed by Jewish law—to bring people closer to Judaism,” said Zisman. Both Zisman and Halper aim to use the Rebbe’s Riders as a means of breaking through the notion of Judaism as old-fashioned or stodgy. Zisman hopes that if people see a rabbi on a bike, it might help reshape their image of the ancien old religion.
Only a few months old, Rebbe’s Riders has grown quickly. Since its inaugural ride in the Mitzvah Tank parade, the group has opened chapters in Brooklyn, upstate New York, New Jersey, and Hawaii, with the largest chapter featuring 12 members in Monsey, N,Y. The group does not ask for any dues. Rather, it encourages members to support their local Chabad House.
Although Rebbe’s Riders may epitomize the changing face of Orthodox Judaism, they are also an embodiment of a new breed of bikers. According to Eric Gelia of King Cycles, a motorcycle shop near the Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters in Brooklyn, bikers have become much more mainstream in the past decade. “They’re more open, people embrace it wholeheartedly,” said Gelia. Although Zisman acknowledges that a few people have been skeptical of attaching the Judaism label to a motorcycle group, he maintains that the old biker characterizations are outdated. “The stereotype of the Hell’s Angels has gone already.”,” said Zisman.
In fact, Halper contends that the “wild and crazy” label given to most bikers doesn’t apply. Citing the many dangers while riding on the road, Halper insists that intense concentration is required when competing with cars and trucks at breakneck speeds. Halper reasons that by necessity bikers are some of the most disciplined people on the road. “You have to be so, so conservative and so, so proactive when you’re riding so you don’t end up as road kill,” said Halper.
Zisman agrees and finds a link between being an observant Jew and good rider. Acknowledging that being observant means constant discipline, Zisman finds that, along with his wife and children, his religion reminds him to ride safely.
“Our bodies are on loan from God,” said Zisman. “If we don’t take care of our bodies, how are we going to serve God?”