During the month of October, 73 year-old Denver resident Herzl Melmed was on a mission. Clasping his handlebars with gritty determination, Melmed peddled through Colorado's majestic but "unforgiving" Rocky Mountains, and continued through Arizona's blazing arid desert - a journey which took 20 days and spanned 1,000 miles, from Denver to Phoenix. Sponsored every mile of the way, the South African born doctor was on a quest to raise money to support bike clubs for Israeli children living close to the Gazan border in the western Negev.
"What child does not like to cycle?" asks Melmed in a telephone interview with Metro after his return to Denver. "And yet, for the kids living close to Gaza, this everyday 'normal' activity is denied; parents are afraid of the kids riding unattended, and so very few have bikes!
"Despite these concerns, we wanted to try and reintroduce some normalcy into their lives," he continues. "They're kids; we want them to live like kids."
Last year Melmed's organization, ActionIsrael, raised over $25,000, money which helped establish Kibbutz Nahal Oz's first cycling club.
"Nahal Oz was the first place to be hit by a missile from Gaza," Tami Halevi, the project's coordinator on the kibbutz, explains. "That was nine years ago and the missiles never stopped until the end of 'Operation Cast Lead' in January. There are still a few falling, but nothing like it was."
Halevi told of the hardship suffered by parents and children alike, despite the promises of relief from the government.
"It took some five years to build [the bomb shelters] and [they were] only completed a few months ago," she says. "It has been so traumatic for the children, and no less for the parents who were always worrying about their children."
Only 850 meters from the border with the Gaza Strip, Nahal Oz is the closest Israeli residential area to the Palestinian territory. Not only has the kibbutz been beset by the constant barrage of Kassam rockets and mortar shells, but it has "also been infiltrated by terrorists. So there is always this feeling of fear," Halevi says.
"And then of course, there is the noise. Our children have grown up with the constant soundtrack to a war movie," she continues. "Even if the missiles do not land close by, the Tzeva Adom (Color Red warning siren) is going off all the time, constantly disrupting everyday life, and then it's the quick dash to the shelter. You have only a few seconds to find protection."
It was for these very reasons that when Melmed's organization proposed donating money some two years ago for the purpose of buying bicycles for the children, the residents were initially opposed. As bomb shelters were scarce, being outdoors was considered unsafe.
"Children were not allowed to roam on the kibbutz without an adult. And if they were caught on their bikes out in the open, what would happen?" she says. "However Herzl [Melmed] was determined. He felt our children deserved a childhood like kids elsewhere. He was so right."
With the money raised 18 months ago, "we have today a wonderful cycling club, professionally managed, divided into three age groups with guides: 6-9, 10-12, and over," Halevi, who is the administrator of the club, says, adding that "building on our success and the financial support of ActionIsrael, we are looking to soon open another club in the area.
"The terrain here is perfect for off-road cycling," she says, "and we hope to attract cyclists from all over Israel to join us in our rides and explore our wonderful countryside."
Melmed explains that ActionIsrael is different to other organizations in that "we respond only to crisis situations. We identify a pressing cause and we act. We generally avoid the large organizations impeded by bureaucracy."
ACTIONISRAEL WAS founded during the early days of the second intifada. "Together with our Christian supporters in Denver, we started holding demonstrations on the steps of the State Capital Building in support of Israel, attracting thousands of onlookers," Melmed says. "We had volunteers standing throughout the week holding Israeli flags and placards."
When word got out that the stalls in Jerusalem's Ben Yehuda's pedestrian mall were about to close due to a lack of tourists, Melmed and the other activists took action.
"We started what we called 'Ben Yehuda Malls,'" he tells. "We invited Israeli shopkeepers to Denver where we provided the venue for them to set up stalls, and we advertised. We ran this project for a few years, and so many of these shopkeepers later told us that it saved their businesses."
No less important, says Melmed, "it brought home to the American public what Israeli citizens were being forced to endure. So successful were we in this project, that it was replicated in other cities throughout the US."
As the intifada wound down and tourism improved, "we learned that there were one and a quarter million Israelis living below the poverty line, half of them children." he says. Again, to raise money, and to graphically portray the plight of these unfortunate people, his group "set up 'Soup Kitchens' in Denver, where we sold at our stores - run by our wives - bowls of soup and a sandwich. Over a three-year period we raised over $120,000, which we then distributed to soup kitchens throughout Israel."
When IsraelAction later learned of Shulchan la Shulchan (Table to Table), which works to acquire food from businesses and restaurants which is slated for trash, and instead delivers it to the needy, they contributed $34,000 to the group.
"Besides the support we receive in Israel, we depend on our donors overseas, and organizations like IsraelAction help us to rescue some 110 tons of food a week enabling us to feed hungry mouths all over the country," Paul Liba, director of development at Table to Table, explains. "I've no doubt ActionIsrael's bike project will be a huge success. These guys have the motivation and the means to move projects quickly and professionally."
Raz Arbel who runs the tourism department in the Ramat Negev
Regional Council is very excited by the bike project. Having recently returned after two years as the Jewish Agency emissary to Denver, he had worked closely with Melmed, who chaired the Partnership 2000 (P2K), a program which created a strong relationship between Denver and Ramat Negev.
"We worked on many projects together enriching this part of the Negev, but it was in the first month that I arrived in Denver in 2007 that Melmed's ActionIsrael was looking for a project that addressed the needs of the children living near Gaza," he says.
"We had brainstorming meetings, and then this idea for 'Bikes for Kids under Fire' came up and was approved," Arbel continues. "The news coming through of daily rocket attacks only fueled Herzl and his colleagues to move more quickly."
One of their earliest fundraising activities took place in the largest bike shop in Denver. "Whatever the public bought that day - from expensive bikes to cycling clothing and accessories - 20% went toward the Nahal Oz bike club."
"The response was fantastic," he says. "I addressed the public and showed a film, while the Vice Consul from Los Angeles, Gilad Milo also spoke about the situation of life for Israelis living near Gaza. We must have raised some $12,000 that day."
Melmed recalls after leaving Colorado on his bike and entering the Navaho Indian Reserve in Arizona, he stopped at a hotel, exhausted after a tiring day in the saddle. Always on his mind was "the cause" driving his legs to push on.
Inside the hotel's lobby was an abstract painting of Indian tepees and giant arrows piercing the ground all around these primitive dwellings.
"You could not see the archers, but you could imagine them lurking somewhere firing their deadly arrows," he says. "How it must be for the people of Sderot and neighboring area."
The next morning, Melmed walked past the painting again before saddling up. He relished the challenge ahead.
For more information about the project contact Tami Halevi at [email protected], or Herzl Melmed at [email protected]