By Deborah Gastfreund Schuss
At precisely 9:30 a.m., it was kickstands up in the parking lot of Precision Harley-Davidson in Pawtucket, R.I. Pam Lipman, a pet sitter from Massachusetts, mounted her Harley-Davidson Softail Slim. A few hundred feet away, her fiancé Jeff Komrower secured his helmet, donned his colors and hopped aboard his Harley Road King.
They were ready for the roar.
Lipman, 56, and Komrower, 61, are members of a Jewish motorcycle group called Lonsmen–New England Chapter, of which Komrower is president. Landsman is a Yiddish word denoting kinship, as much a draw for these riding enthusiasts as the allure of the open road. On this day, they saddled up for a 55-mile ride alongside some 200 other bikers belonging to clubs with names like Shalom & Chrome and Mazel Tuffs.
Fueled by bagels and cream cheese shmeer, these Jews on “twos” were on a mission. As part of a 4,000-strong international umbrella organization known as the Jewish Motorcyclists Alliance, they rode in from all over North America to take part in its annual Ride to Remember, a signature event that raises money to perpetuate the memory of the Holocaust and support programs that promote awareness.
Twenty of the alliance’s 34 clubs throughout the U.S., Israel, Canada, England, Australia and South Africa were represented. Almost all members are Jewish, though some who aren’t join because of the camaraderie and enthusiasm for the cause.
“If you see a couple hundred people on motorcycles in leathers, they are not to be messed with, whether or not they’re Jews,” said Komrower, an acoustical engineer who relishes smashing the stereotype of Jews as bookworms rather than bikers. “So to me, to be able to ride with that kind of aura, which is diametrically opposed to the way Jews were forced to submit during that period – and at the same time to raise money for Holocaust remembrance – is meaningful.”
This is the R2R’s 13th – or bar mitzvah – year. But the effort has taken on a greater sense of urgency with the recognition that Jews once again have become targets around the world, the motorcyclists said. Many are children of Holocaust survivors or had relatives who perished. For others who grew up the 1950s and 1960s, the Holocaust was burned into their consciousness with vivid memories of neighbors whose tattooed forearms signified unthinkable atrocities in Auschwitz. So these bikers rip through the roadways with moxie that will pulverize any notion of present-day victimhood.
“Anti-Semitism is on the rise, and Jews are going back to being afraid of showing that they are Jews,” said Uri Kronenblut, 52, a member of the Toronto-based Riders of the Covenant who moved to Canada from Israel. “We have to make sure people see that we are here, and we are here to stay.”
The proceeds from this year’s ride – $41,000 so far – go to the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center in Providence, R.I. Its officials played a pivotal role in the recent passage of legislation requiring Holocaust and genocide education in the state's middle and high schools.
Supporting Holocaust education fires the bikers’ passion because they are painfully aware the day will come soon when all survivors are deceased, leaving a permanent void.
“It just touches my heart,” said Ed Forman, 68, a retired U.S. army officer and president of the Jewish Motorcyclists Alliance. “I want to do all I can to raise as much money and provide the best educational material and resources, so future generations will never forget the lessons of the Holocaust.”
Forman belongs to King David Bikers of South Florida, and tells me he customarily rides with the tallit and tefillin from his bar mitzvah tucked into his motorcycle’s saddlebag. He says it serves as a reminder of the 613 commandments Jews must fulfill and keeps alive the memory of his father, who helped liberate Buchenwald with Patton’s Third Army and prayed in the field during combat operations in World War II.
Avi Kuperberg’s father was among the 21,000 prisoners liberated at Buchenwald. Kuperberg, a clinical psychologist and rabbi in New Jersey, bikes regularly with Chai Riders of New York and with Forman’s group while in Florida. Kuperberg and others were able to participate in Friday’s event and observe the Sabbath afterward, with the help of the local Chabad. Rabbi Yossi Laufer, a grandchild of four Holocaust survivors, brought the motorcyclists a Torah with its ark, prayer books, and a cholent stew along with other fixings.
My late father, also a survivor of Buchenwald, often spoke about his experiences on behalf of the Rhode Island Holocaust Memorial Museum, which later became the Bornstein Center. In a keynote address at the dedication of a Holocaust memorial in its courtyard on Nov. 9, 1993, the 55th anniversary of Kristallnacht, my father said, “We who put so much hope in the conscience of the free world were left entirely alone, forsaken in the final hour.”
“The generation of survivors is growing old and passing away,” he continued. “Who will stand up to protect their memory and safeguard their message?”
With the Holocaust being denied, politicized, and even used as a weapon against the Jewish State, my father undoubtedly would salute these leathered stalwarts with his Yiddish equivalent of an enthusiastic thumbs up: A lebn af ayere kep – a blessing on your heads.