Jewish bikers meld leather, chrome ... and faith

July 29, 2011

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.

* * *

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.”

JMA members are some of the kindest people you’ll meet, but geared up and mounted, they’re intimidating. And when you look so untouchable, people don’t bother you.

Wynne said that a week before the JMA gathering in Virginia Beach, someone wrote “Jews go home” in black marker on his mailbox. “My family is 100 percent of the Jewish population in Brookville, Ohio, where we live,” he explained the morning of the Holocaust remembrance ride. “But just a little while ago, you had a rabbi davening the ... service out here on the boardwalk.” Wynne surveyed the ocean and a long line of motorcycles set up for a photo op. “Who is going to haze a Jew davening with 300 Jewish bikers around him?”

Wynne is one of the founding members of the JMA. He helped organize the first Ride to Remember in 2005, which brought 150 bikes to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps. This year, the event raised money for the Holocaust Commission of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater.

In addition to their philanthropic and awareness-raising projects, the JMA riders are united by a deep love of motorcycles. For some, the freedom of the open road brings them closer to God. But most are not religious. They ride because the experience is empowering. It allows them to combat the Holocaust’s legacy of Jews as sheep to the slaughter. And it allows American Jews to assert the physical prowess usually associated with their Israeli counterparts. “The bike reflects a mechanical competence and physicality,” Alford says. “It combats the notion of Jews as purely intellectual.” It’s not surprising, then, that many clubs make supporting Israel their single membership requirement. The motorcycle is the American Jew’s Uzi: a widely recognized symbol of personal and cultural strength.

* * *

On a Sunday morning in April, a month before the Ride to Remember, the members of the D.C. area Tribe kibitzed over coffee and bagels spread thick with cream cheese. They’d taken over Goldberg’s New York Bagels in Rockville, including a four-top piled with motorcycle gear. They were loud, in volume and appearance. Betsy Ahrens wore flashing gold earrings (multiple in each lobe) and a blinding green T-shirt with the Tribe logo. Another rider, known as the Tribe’s motorcycle safety czar, had encased himself in a riding outfit that resembled a hazmat suit.

One table over, two elderly men in yarmulkes bent over Hebrew books, trying to study. Not that they minded the distraction. “I like to see our boys involved in more than intellectual stuff,” one of them said.

Courtney Talmoud agreed. Her husband rides with the Tribe, and she had no qualms about pulling her children out of religious school that Sunday morning. “My daughter needs to see Jews doing non-conventional things,” Talmoud said. Abbie, 10, a tiny thing among the bikers, grinned over her breakfast.

Ahrens, the Tribe’s president and its only female rider, knows how empowering the bike can be for a young woman. Twenty years ago, she was at a gas station with her then-husband and small daughter when the trio saw a woman ride up to the pump. “Look at that!” Ahrens’s now ex-husband scoffed. “A woman has no place owning her own bike.” The next week, Ahrens went to the DMV and got her motorcycle license.

Like so many of her fellow riders, Ahrens has always bucked the norm. When a nun at her Catholic elementary school announced that, “young Catholic girls don’t play the drums,” Ahrens slapped her. “She was a Carmelite with full face gear,” Ahrens recalls. “I don’t imagine it hurt her very much.” Later, Ahrens became the drummer — and only woman — in a local rock band.

In 2003, Ahrens was living in Manassas when she met a Jewish biker on Match.com. She was interested in a riding partner, not religion, but her then-boyfriend’s faith intrigued her in a way that Catholicism never had. After they split, Ahrens joined a Reform temple in Fairfax. Despite the foreign prayers, she felt a unique sense of acceptance and decided to convert.“It was the community of the Jewish people that drew me in,” she remembers.

It was a few years later that Ahrens heard about the Tribe. Today she rides a motorcycle with a mezuza fixed to her gas tank and a “gefilte fish” (a “Jesus fish” spoof) attached to one saddlebag. “I feel close to God on the bike,” she says. “It’s very spiritual for me. There would be something missing from my Judaism if I didn’t ride.”

David Himber, the 67-year-old president of the New York area Chai Riders, feels the same way. But he’s also Orthodox, which complicates things. “My religious community probably thinks I’m crazy,” he says.

That was apparent on an April evening when the Chai Riders gathered for falafel at a restaurant in Brooklyn with an ultra-Orthodox clientele. Himber noticed that the Hasidic family eating dinner near his group looked mighty uncomfortable. He approached the black-suited father and mother in her traditional marriage wig, called a sheitel. The couple’s small sons looked fearfully at Himber’s chain-link bracelets and leather vest (adorned with patches for the Grateful Dead) and long white ponytail. And just when the boys looked ready to cry, Himber burst into a smile. “Hi!” he exclaimed. “I’m David.”

Himber has been the dean of students at Yeshiva University since 2000, and it’s his job to help soothe anxious students. He’s good at his job, even though he hardly resembles the community he serves. He grew up in an Orthodox yeshiva, where he studied eight hours a day, six days a week. “Even in those days, I felt that I had to be outside the mainstream,” Himber says. He dreamed of riding a motorcycle. Instead, he flouted authority by wearing his belt buckle slightly off-center.

Only in middle age did Himber find his personal Promised Land on the motorcycle seat. “It was a typical midlife crisis,” he says. He had just been through a divorce. He bought a motorcycle, a pair of Sergio Valente jeans and motorcycle boots. But there was a problem. Whenever Himber climbed on the bike, he was overwhelmed with guilt. “In the yeshiva, one of my rabbis said that the worst sin in the world was wasting time.” In Himber’s community the only acceptable pastimes were studying Torah or performing mitzvot, the observing of Jewish law. “Spending a day on the motorcycle riding to nowhere would mean that I accomplished nothing,” Himber says. “In the Chai Riders, I realized I did accomplish something important on the bike. I found enjoyment and the spiritual experience of the road and my buddies.”

* * *

The night before the Ride to Remember, bikers waited in line for kosher hot dogs and hamburgers behind the Holiday Inn swimming pool. Nearly everyone wore a leather jacket plastered with patches proclaiming their various biker club memberships, regional affiliations, musical tastes and political views. The vests testified to the spectrum of ideologies and allegiances represented in the JMA. And they helped explain one of the members’ favorite jokes — of the shipwrecked Jew. According to the story, a man is washed up on a deserted island and builds two synagogues, side by side. When the rescue boat arrives, the captain says, “Why two shuls? You’re the only one here!” To which the man replies, “I built two, so I could refuse to join one of them.”

“Avoiding internal conflict in a Jewish organization is impossible,” Himber says. “Just look at the Jewish community in Israel!”

But the JMA is itself composed of outsiders and nonconformists: people who created conflict doing nothing more than being themselves. In light of that, it would seem nearly impossible to be too much of an outsider among this group. Unless, of course, you’re not Jewish.

With so many people, the patches tended to meld into little more than bright bursts of color. So when Levi Brashevitzky, an Orthodox rabbi at the local Chabad center, approached Michael Costa in the barbecue line and asked if he’d like to participate in the Jewish ritual of wrapping tefillin, he didn’t notice that Costa’s jacket read “CMA”: the Christian Motorcyclists Association. Nor did he see Costa’s Riders of the Apocalypse patch displaying a king on a bucking horse with a long sword protruding tongue-like from his mouth.

Costa, 55, had joined the New Jersey Hillel’s Angels two years ago after befriending a couple of Jewish members who owned the same brand of bike. He had been a regular participant at Angels’ events, but he had never seen tefillin before. The apparatus consists of two black boxes containing prayer scrolls and long leather straps. One box is placed on the bicep and the other on the forehead between the eyes. They are meant to unite the subject with God. Now Costa looked nervous as the rabbi mummified his arm and head in leather and prayed over him.

“How do you feel?” Rabbi Levi asked, as he untied Costa.

“It was my first time,” Costa said, a little sheepishly.

“This is a momentous occasion!” the rabbi exclaimed. “It’s like your bar mitzvah!” By this point, a small group had gathered around, including Zachary Betesh, another Orthodox rabbi (known in the JMA as Rabbi Zack) who rode a bright orange Harley and wore a helmet painted with orange skulls.

“Of course, it was Costa’s first time,” someone muttered. “He’s Christian.”

Rabbi Levi froze. He stared at Rabbi Zack, terrified, as though God would promptly smite him down poolside at the Holiday Inn.

But Rabbi Zack only shrugged. “Eh,” he said, throwing up his hands in resignation.

Rabbi Levi choked out a laugh. “Mazel tov?” he said.

Costa wasn’t sure what had just passed between the two rabbis, but a moment later, when Rabbi Zack returned with shots of whiskey to commemorate the moment, Costa eagerly drank his down.

Costa, 55, felt a spiritual calling to join the Angels. “There’s a bad history between so-called Christianity and the Jews,” he said, referring to the Christians responsible for the Spanish Inquisition and Holocaust. “I want to show people we’re not all like that.” Costa says he feels a natural affinity for the Jewish people. “The New Covenant says that Christians were grafted from the root — and that root is the Jewish people.” He laughed and added, “I also love lox and bagels.”

The Hillel’s Angels have accepted Costa, but they never talk religion. To do so would most likely create an unbridgeable divide between them. Costa believes that Jesus is God’s son and died for humanity’s sins. “If you read the Jewish prophets,” Costa says, “you cannot help but conclude that Yeshua is the Messiah.” When asked about the Book of Revelation, which states that non-believers will go to Hell, Costa deflected. He held up a rubber bracelet with the words “Love God. Love Others.” “Only God knows the heart, so I can’t say what God’s going to do,” Costa said.

Ron Wynne was more direct. “We are a Jewish organization, and we do not believe the Messiah has come,” he said the morning after the barbecue. “We do not believe in the Book of Revelations.” Wynne was agitated, in part because Rabbi Zack had called him at 2 a.m., complaining about Costa and the tefillin debacle. The rabbi, it turned out, was much less accepting than he’d appeared that night.

By morning, Betsy Ahrens had also heard about the incident. “He shouldn’t be going around talking about his faith,” she said. “But the JMA bylaws say you have to support the state of Israel,” she added. “They don’t say you have to be Jewish.”

* * *

On the Friday morning of this year’s Ride to Remember, 177 bikes rolled into the parking lot of Beth Chaverim synagogue in Virginia Beach. Orthodox girls in calf-length black skirts and long-sleeve shirts huddled at their open classroom windows, giddy at the sight of the bikes. The air was thick with competing sounds: growling engines mixed with the Beach Boys and Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Inside the synagogue, a breakfast of bagels, fruit and Israeli salad was well underway. Only when a hulking rabbi rider in a traditional Jewish prayer shawl stood up did the chattering crowd begin to fall silent.

“The shacharit morning service begins in five minutes in the sanctuary!” the rabbi boomed. A few people went to pray, but most returned to their conversations. Then, suddenly, someone burst into “Hinay Ma Tov,” a joyous song for the Sabbath. Soon the throaty sound of Hebrew filled the room. People banged their fists on the tables and swayed with abandon. Then they headed back outside to gear up and roll out.

Later that afternoon, after the JMA’s seventh annual Ride to Remember had finished, a local Virginia Beach rabbi would stand before the bikers and speak about Jewish history as a series of journeys. After this weekend, these leather-clad men and women would return to their homes and everyday lives. But right now, he would say, they were the Jewish slaves who had left Egypt for the Promised Land and Holocaust survivors who had found freedom in the state of Israel.

“Our history has been a process of traveling from servitude toward deliverance,” he’d tell them. “You can’t be a Jew and stay in one place forever.”

Jennifer Miller is a freelance writer based in New York. Her debut novel, “The Year of the Gadfly,” will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt next spring. She can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com .

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