The wind was blowing and the air was chilly as the bikers lined up early Sunday morning on the College of Saint Elizabeth campus in Morristown. Israeli music blared from speakers and volunteers and spectators cheered as the riders started off under a canopy of balloons.
Three loops of 18, 36, and 62 miles each wound through the area (four including the one-mile family fun ride). By the time the April 29 event was over, more than 200 riders — from babies through octogenarians — had pedaled, all to benefit Jewish summer camps: The Tour de Summer Camps bike ride raised more than $430,000.
Besides the funds, the goal of the Tour de Summer Camps, organized by the federation in partnership with the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), was to raise awareness of and celebrate Jewish camping.
“We’re really excited to see hundreds of bikers go off in support of camp, and the camps that are here bringing the spirit of camp to the community,” said Tracy Levine, director of One Happy Camper NJ, a project of the federation and FJC. It provides up to $1,000 in incentive grants for local families sending children to Jewish summer camp for the first time regardless of need, scholarships for Jewish summer camp, and free advisory services. Since the incentive program was piloted with 35 families in 2007, 2,351 grants have been given. FJC’s matching funds, which peaked at $147,000, ended in 2017. Funds from the bike ride, according to organizers, will help replace that money as well as fund more incentive grants and scholarships. The additional funds bring the total annual fund raising for One Happy Camper NJ to more than $900,000.
Many of the riders were Jewish camp enthusiasts. “Jewish camps are really important,” said Jodi Fox of Maplewood, who rode the 18-mile loop with her son, Daniel. “Kids who go to Jewish camp have a lifelong desire to be involved in Judaism.”
“I absolutely love camp,” said Briana Schwartz, 14, of Mount Laurel, who attends the Reform URJ Camp Harlam. “It’s like my whole life.” While Briana rode the one-mile loop, her father biked the 36-mile course.
Abbi Bondi, 12, of Hillside attends NJY Camps’ Camp Nesher, where, she said, she likes “swimming and the jet skis on the lake” as well as “saying Havdalah at the end of Shabbos. It’s nice because everyone sings.”
Rebecca Gold, president of Women’s Philanthropy of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, also cycled the 18-mile route. When she was 12 and her family could not afford to send her, she said, she received a scholarship to Camp Ramah in the Berkshires.
About 55 people participated in the event as volunteers. Among them were teenagers Zach Petr, 14, of Morristown; Abby Strugger, 15, of Maplewood; and Lauren Levy, 15, of Springfield. Zach, a scholarship recipient, would not have been able to attend NJY Camps if not for the grant, according to his mother, Rachel Platt of Morristown. “He looks forward to it all year, and he’s more appreciative of his Jewish identity because of it,” she said.
Abby and Lauren, who now attend NJY Camps’ teen division, met their first summer at camp six years ago. “Camp is one of those experiences we wish everyone could have,” said Abby. “It’s a combination of the people you meet and the friends you make. And it’s a lot of learning. Whether you know it or not, you’re always learning more about Judaism and more about leadership.” Added Lauren, “I feel like it’s shaped me as the person I am today.”
The Tour de Camp was modeled on a similar program begun in Los Angeles five years ago. According to FJC CEO Jeremy Fingerman, who participated in the 18-mile ride, the Greater MetroWest event “will really be a catalyst for other communities saying, ‘Hey, we can do it, too.’”
For most of the bikers, their chief reason to be there was to support Jewish camp. “I’m a big fan of Jewish camp,” said Sara Mor of Highland Park. “I think it’s a great place to meet people and connect to your Jewish identity.” She did the family ride with her husband, Yechiel, and their children, Matanel, 2, and baby Ranan, and their dog, Dvash.
David Stowers of West Orange, an avid biker who completed the 62-mile ride, said he was happy to ride despite the cold and wind; sending his two daughters to the Reconstructionist Camp JRF, now Camp Havaya, was “the single most important thing we’ve done,” giving them summers “in a totally Jewish environment — and they loved it.” Both received campership incentive grants.
At the end of the day, as the bikers enjoyed a post-ride barbecue, children explored camp activities at booths set up by the camps as a family fun day, which attracted another 225 people. Children had their faces painted, did arts and crafts activities, kicked around a ball, and even had a chance to use a bicycle to power a blender, courtesy of Eden Village Camp, which focuses on sustainability.
“The Greater MetroWest Federation is a model for what other federations should be doing with camping,” said Rabbi Ethan Linden, executive director of Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, which had set up an activity booth.
Summing up her experience on the one-mile route, Gittel Grossbaum of Livingston, 9, said, “I like bike riding. This experience just tells me I should keep on going and I never should stop.”