Zac Gindi of Long Branch is a dedicated cyclist, but he doesn’t just pedal
to stay fit. For years, he has been riding in Bike4Chai, the principal
fund-raiser for Chai Lifeline, the Lakewood organization whose mission
is “to bring joy to the lives of seriously ill children and their families.”
Gindi first heard about the ride one Shavuot afternoon about eight years ago. He and his next-door neighbor were talking about ways to stay in shape, when the neighbor’s young son piped up: “Why don’t you guys ride for my camp?”
That camp is Camp Simcha Special, a project of Chai Lifeline, in upstate New York, which welcomes children and teens with a wide range of diseases and disabilities. Camp Simcha Special and Camp Simcha are Chai Lifeline’s flagship programs, providing two-week camp experiences for children battling serious and chronic illnesses.
The neighbor’s son, a teenager who will attend university this fall, has a condition that caused his bones to stop developing and damaged his respiratory system, leaving him on a respirator and confined to a wheelchair. The day after the boy made his suggestion, the two men went out and bought bikes, and Gindi, who prays at The Lawrence Avenue Shul in Deal, has been cycling ever since in the two-day, men-only Bike4Chai event — and will do so again, Aug. 14-15.
Chai Lifeline, said Gindi, “is a phenomenal organization [with] a very clear mission, and is laser focused on achieving that mission: to care for the entire family when their child is ill.” Another aim is “to keep up the spirits of the children themselves so they can battle whatever illness they are going through,” Gindi said.
Marking its 10th anniversary, Bike4Chai, which raises about a third of Chai Lifeline’s $28 million budget, will kick off with pre-ride festivities — and a pasta party — in Princeton the evening of Tuesday, Aug. 13. The riders will head out at 7 the next morning from Princeton, as they did last year, with the camp their destination. Ride director Yoel Margolese wrote in an email that the organization works to “keep the routes exciting and challenging for the riders.”
The spark for Bike4Chai came from Chai Lifeline volunteer Dovid Egert, who biked some 135 miles alone from his home in Lakewood to Camp Simcha in Glen Spey, N.Y., and in the process raised $10,000 in donations.
Alan Shamah, a resident of Deal in summer, Brooklyn the rest of the year, is an avid biker who jumped at the chance to help plan the first Bike4Chai fund-raiser a decade ago. He was aware of Chai Lifeline’s work because it had supported his cousin’s family for seven years while their son fought a rare cancer that took his life at age 15.
“Chai Lifeline was always there for him,” said Shamah, a board member of the Sephardic Community Alliance. “Chai Lifeline does anything and everything for anybody and everybody.” They step in “when you are lost and don’t know where to turn,” providing advice on everything from access to medical care to how to give the siblings of a seriously ill child sufficient attention.
Shamah said Chai Lifeline’s camp program is dedicated “to bringing childhood back to children who lost it when they were diagnosed” with serious illnesses.
At the planning meeting for the first bike ride, in 2009, Chai Lifeline was not thinking big. “They wanted to get a few riders and raise a reasonable amount of money to get started,” Shamah said. But the riders themselves had high expectations and raised a quarter-million dollars. This year Shamah hopes to top last year’s $10 million yield by $2 million. As of July 31, his team, Team SYclist, had raised close to $941,000 toward its $1,000,000 goal, from 1,742 donors.
The 180-mile route, from New Jersey to Camp Simcha in the Catskills, winds through the hills of New Jersey and the Pocono Mountains and into upstate New York and takes riders on a significant rise in altitude. (Chai Lifeline also runs a separate, 100-mile “Tour de Simcha” for women; the 160 women on this year’s ride, which took place July 15-16, raised $1.4 million.)
Yitz Singer, an Elizabeth resident and board member at The Elmora Hills Minyan, will bike this year for the third time. “Other than the fact I’m a cyclist more than anything, I like the fact that I am able to raise funds and help others who are less fortunate,” he said.
As a cyclist, Singer said, the ride has given him “a great sense of accomplishment to ride a ‘century’ — over a hundred miles.”
Chai Lifeline limits the number of participants to 500, both to make the ride logistically manageable and to enable all the riders to personally feel the warm welcome from the kids at Camp Simcha.
Chai Lifeline staff members do everything they can to encourage and assist the participants. A sag (short for “support and gear”) wagon helps change flat tires or make other repairs and an ambulance is available for an emergency. Rest stops every 20 miles or so offer food and entertainment.
“After many years of going through trials and tribulations, it is probably the most efficiently run event you’re going to ever see,” Shamah said. “They take care of everything; you feel like you just have to worry about going up those hills.”
Gindi agreed. “They are continuously learning and improving year after year. They keep thinking, looking, and figuring out ways to make it better. Because you are so well supported, if you can ride a bike, you can do it. It’s not a race. Everybody gets a medal.
“There is also a lot of camaraderie,” continued Gindi. “There’s always somebody who is going to cheer you on from another bicycle. People who have never met before are all unified by the cause.”
About 100 miles into the race, the bikers stop overnight at the Kalahari Water Park in the Poconos. The next morning the bikers wake up, pray, have breakfast, and push out at about 7, assembling a short distance from the camp so they can arrive en masse around 2 p.m.
Gindi described the scene of the riders rolling into camp as “an incredible celebration, with campers, counselors, and family members…. There’s music playing; you’re dancing with the kids and picking up kids in their wheelchairs.”
Before arriving at the camp’s gate, Shamah said, “you see these kids in wheelchairs waiting outside, and they are so excited about us coming in and what we’ve done for them — they want to ride in with us.
“When they tell you it is the greatest finish line in the world, they are not exaggerating.”
To contribute to Bike4Chai (the maximum number of cyclists has been registered to ride), visit bike4chai.com.