On a Friday morning in May, Betsy Ahrens, 64, rode through the streets of Virginia Beach on a friend’s bright red Honda Gold Wing motorcycle. Ahrens was just one of 250 bikers to travel through the city by police escort that day, and pedestrians gawked, slack-jawed, at the processional. Drivers halted at intersections, aiming their cellphone cameras. A few people waved at Betsy, but tentatively, as though to greet a biker — however friendly she seemed — would be to welcome in potential chaos, the volatility associated with leather and chrome.
As the snake of bikes wound past strip malls and quaint neighborhoods, Ahrens wondered what the onlookers were thinking. She hoped they could make out the Judaism-themed patches fixed to the riders’ leather jackets: the blazing insignias of the Lost Tribe, the Jewish motorcycle club of Richmond and the Tidewater region of Virginia; the Chai Riders of New York City and its environs; the Hillel’s Angels of New Jersey; and Shalom n’ Chrome of Charleston, S.C. Ahrens decided that next year, her cohorts needed to fly more Israeli flags from their bikes.
Ahrens heard an engine growl and felt a rush of air as one of the police officers zoomed by to stop traffic at the upcoming intersection. The officer looked so proud and strong, mounted on his own motorcycle, and it suddenly struck Ahrens that this government authority was directing traffic to help protect her fellow Jewish bikers, riding in remembrance of the Holocaust. Her eyes filled with tears as she remembered Europe’s 6 million Jews who had not been so lucky.
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There’s something uncomfortable, if not perverse, about a mass of bikers riding to remember the Holocaust. The 46 motorcycle clubs of the Jewish Motorcyclists Alliance know it. In fact, for many of them, the idea of a Jewish motorcycle club was once completely counterintuitive. Ron Wynne, 47, president of the JMA, puts it this way: “Ask anyone here in Virginia Beach, and they’ll tell you that before the JMA, they thought they were the only Jewish biker in existence.”
Steven Alford is a professor of motorcycle studies at Nova Southeastern University in Florida and, with colleague Suzanne Ferriss, author of “Motorcycle,” a history of global motorcycle culture. (Yes, motorcycle studies is a legitimate academic field, complete with an academic journal.)
“The motorcycle is a protean object. It can be adopted for any purpose and any group,” Alford says. And there are many groups. The largest are the owners associations linked to bike brands such as Harley-Davidson, Honda and BMW. But there are also scores of niche clubs: from the Rolling Thunder Vietnam War veterans who storm the Mall each Memorial Day weekend, to Dykes on Bikes, to numerous African American biker clubs, to women’s clubs such as Leather and Lace. Most niche motorcycle clubs represent minority communities whose members ride and affect the biker’s fierce persona to combat feelings of disenfranchisement, the professors say. As Ferriss explains, “The bike is associated with rebellion.”