Alan Aharon Newman in Greece, cycling for The Next Ride. Photo: Courtesy of Alan Aharon Newman.
Alan Aharon Newman in Greece, cycling for The Next Ride. Photo: Courtesy of Alan Aharon Newman.
featureIsrael at War

From bike tour to mitzvah mission

How one couple transformed their Israel wartime vacation.

Alan Aharon Newman is an avid cyclist who rides more than 100 miles each week, in and around his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland.

He had been planning to put his love of cycling to good use and join a group of around 100 other serious cyclists in Israel to raise money for The Next Ride, an organization that helps amputees in Israel who lost limbs due to terrorism, combat wounds, cancer or birth defects. The Next Ride is part of a larger organization called The Next Step, which provides advocacy, support, prosthetics, education and respite to amputees.

Newman joined last year’s bike tour in Greece. He and the other cyclists rode 200 miles at elevations of up to 15,000 feet (over 4,500 meters) and raised $3 million.

Because of his love of biking and his love of Israel, The Next Ride appealed to him.

“Unfortunately, while Israelis are in the forefront of many things, when it comes to prosthetics they are not,” explained Newman. “The amputee community in Israel is given one [kind of] prosthetic, and not necessarily a good one. The Next Step raises money to get prosthetics for different people—those who enjoy sports require a particular kind of prosthetic, for instance. They have been helping amputees by bringing them to the United States for a higher quality of prosthetics.”

The bike tour offers participants the opportunity to raise money from friends and family. The minimum fundraising commitment is $10,000. According to Newman, numerous amputees take part in the bicycle tours, which are held not just in Israel but in destinations that have included Dubai and Morocco.

Although Newman had already raised more than $10,000, the war against Hamas curtailed plans for the bike tour, which was originally scheduled for Thailand but later relocated to Israel’s north.

Since Newman and his wife, Sherri Zaslow, still had their plane tickets to go to Israel and were planning to attend his brother Jay’s wedding and visit with children and grandchildren, they turned their Israel trip into one of support for the wounded, the bereaved and those waiting for loved ones to be released from captivity.

Before they left, they filled four large duffle bags with items donated by Baltimore charities. They were stuffed with cargo vests for soldiers and toys for families who had been displaced from their homes. They put them on the plane with help from El Al representatives who discounted the extra baggage.

The couple kicked off their visit with a volunteer stint at Yad Sarah, repairing and cleaning wheelchairs to give to people who need them, and then paid a visit to a soldier in the hospital, a cousin of a friend of theirs from Baltimore.

“He was protecting us near Lebanon when his tank was hit by a rocket,” Zaslow recalls. “His watch was lost when they transferred him to the stretcher, so we bought him a new one.”

As they completed this task, another presented itself.

“Two weeks ago, my friend Tanya from New Jersey had written, asking if anyone was going to Israel soon and could bring a pair of tefillin that she would like to donate,” Zaslow recalls. “The evening before we were flying she dropped them off at 1:30 a.m. Once in Israel, I contacted Mitzvah Opportunity, an Israeli organization, but we couldn’t work out getting the tefillin to him as he was in another town.”

The day after his brother’s wedding, after attending a late prayer minyan, Newman met a man who was getting off an urgent phone call from a friend on an army base. The man mentioned that his friend was looking for a pair of tefillin. Newman sprung to action with the donated pair. Mitzva #2 completed!

The following day they joined The Next Step’s Solidarity Trip to Israel, a four-day, three-night mission of solidarity.

The first scheduled trip with The Next Step took them to the Kidnapped Command Center in Tel Aviv, where they comforted relatives of those being held captive in the Gaza Strip.

“In addition to all the heartbreaking yet beautiful exhibits, which included posters, plasma screens, names, notes, messages by and for the kidnapped hostages, many of the families were there speaking and meeting people,” Zaslow says. “Some sleep in tents and refuse to leave until their loved ones return home.”

They had meaningful exchanges with relatives of the hostages.

“We met with the uncle of 28-year-old Eden Zecharya, who was brutally injured and kidnapped from the peaceful music festival [near Kibbutz Re’im on Oct. 7]. Eden tried to run and escape with two friends. The terrorists were firing at them and Eden had gunshot wounds. One friend died, one managed to hide and escape, injured, and Eden was kidnapped. Her friend who escaped witnessed this and gave the firsthand account to the family.”

Now the family is waiting for information. While they know nothing else at this point, Zaslow says the family feels strongly that she is alive and they will see her again.

“Her uncle spoke with such conviction about this and related all that he heard had happened. He helped us glimpse into her as a person before the horrific events.”

They then met with the uncle of Omar. Omar was also at the music festival. He was shot, beaten, stripped to his underwear and paraded humiliatingly.

“He is in a bare cell and injured,” explains Zaslow. “The family knows because those inhumane monsters used Omar’s phone to video and post it. Omar’s uncle feels in his bones that he will survive and come home.”

From there the travelers were taken to dinner with Rabbi Katzin, who lost a leg in the Lebanon war.

Then they paid a heartfelt shivah call to the Mark family in Otniel, who lost a father, Rabbi Michael Mark, to terrorism in 2016 and were mourning the fresh loss of their son 2nd Lt. Pedayah Mark, who was killed in action in the Gaza Strip.fcouple

“There have been over 30 new amputees since the war began,” according to Shoshana Jacobs, cofounder and executive director of both The Next Ride fund-raising initiative and The Next Step organization.

“We immediately arranged for groups of amputees to visit people who lost a limb, while they were still in the hospital recovering. We meet each family and introduce them to other amputees.”

In addition to advocacy, community activities and support for families, The Next Step has twice-weekly bicycle riding clinics for amputees, one in the Jerusalem area and another near Tel Aviv. It also offers weekly surfing and rock-climbing clinics.

Jacobs says members of the amputee community are often depressed at first but find new meaning thanks to the organization’s support services and community.

Shoshana Jacobs, executive director of The Next Step, at Sheba Medica Center in Ramat Gan with a couple wounded in the Oct. 7 attack. Credit: Courtesy of Shoshana Dessler Jacobs.

Newman and Zaslow found their trip packed with non-stop meaningful activities as part of The Next Step mission including a visit to Tel Hashomer/Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, where they met with a couple who both lost their left legs at the attack at the music festival, and visits to southern communities to get a firsthand account from a police chief who helped repel the terrorists on Oct. 7.

I caught up with them as they finished their visit with the ZAKA Disaster Victim Identification organization representative at Kibbutz Kfar Aza and prepared for the final day of activities, which was to include a meeting with Baruch Cohen, a guard at Kibbutz Magen who lost his leg when terrorists shot a rocket-propelled grenade at him. If not for Cohen, hundreds of lives would have been lost there.

Zaslow said, “It isn’t like visiting Masada, which is rebuilt. Here you are walking through Kfar Aza and smelling everything burned and seeing the bullet holes in the doors, the broken security fence, the thick dust and little children’s toys mixed in the rubble, it’s not ‘sanitized’ like Masada. This is now. This is the present. We are hearing the booms and seeing the black plumes of smoke from Gaza. It’s happening now and you feel it with all your senses.”

“We heard artillery going off the whole time,” Newman said, “but there was also a whole platoon of soldiers that were incoming and the troops were from all over the world—Venezuela, Ethiopia. The policeman who related the events of Oct. 7 and who was involved in the fighting and lost many close friends, yet he was so positive in the end. He said we are here. We will rebuild.”

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