Riding for joy

The Alyn hospital’s ‘Wheels of Love’ five-day bicycle ride has become a national institution.

Cyclists from around the globe participate in last year’s Wheels of Love ride (photo credit: HAGAI SHMUELI)
Cyclists from around the globe participate in last year’s Wheels of Love ride
(photo credit: HAGAI SHMUELI)
While the security situation continues to evolve in worrying directions, there is at least one oasis of tranquility and harmony in these parts, a place where no one cares about your religion, nationality or gender.
That place is Alyn Orthopedic Hospital and Rehabilitation Center in Kiryat Hayovel, in Jerusalem.
Alyn is a rehabilitation center for physically challenged and disabled children and adolescents. The center was founded in 1932 by an American orthopedist, Dr. Henry Keller, who dedicated his life to voluntary work among physically challenged children in Jerusalem. Today, Alyn is one of the world’s leading hospitals specializing in the active and intensive rehabilitation of children with a broad range of physical disabilities.
The bare facts and statistics tell only a fraction of the real story and the heartwarming dynamics of the center. You really need to get yourself over to Kiryat Hayovel to see with your own eyes, and to feel with your own heart, the dedication of the Alyn staff, and more importantly, the joy of children and adolescents who, at first glance, appear to be in a terrible state and to have absolutely no reason to smile, let alone laugh out loud – and, yes, to enjoy life.
I first came across that incredible and inspiring vibe at the end of the Alyn charity bike ride, Wheels of Love, a few years back. The ride culminated with the arrival of all 600-plus riders at the hospital, where we each received a medal for our cycling and fund-raising efforts. As I bent down to receive my medal from a child of around 10 who was fitted with a respirator tube and was confined to a wheelchair, I felt humbled and enriched.
Providing such devoted ongoing care for kids with tough physical and emotional challenges does not come cheap.
The bike ride raises invaluable funds to help keep the place going. It started in 1999 with just nine riders, and now takes in five days of on-road/off-road, touring and challenge cycling in various part of the country. It also incorporates a “one-dayer” for those, such as myself, who cannot free up the full five days.
CHAIM WIZMAN has been in the Wheels of Love hot seat for the past nine months and, despite mounting pressure with the approach of this year’s five day ride, which kicks off on October 25, he managed to squeeze in a few minutes to talk to me about the demands and rewards of his relatively new position.
New York-born Wizman is a story in himself. He is an Orthodox rabbi and lawyer who, prior to being headhunted by Alyn, ran a specialist bicycle and fitness store near Beit Shemesh.
Wizman’s official title is director of special projects and, in addition to Wheels of Love, his purview takes in a new venture – a bike ride in the UK. Oh, and the father of six is also a marathon runner, trains marathon runners, and is also involved in the Tanach Tashach 200 km. relay race, which takes place under the auspices of the Mateh Yehuda Regional Council. This year’s overnight relay race starts only a few hours after the Wheels of Love ride ends. Barely 24 hours after the run, Wizman will board a plane for London to contribute to the inaugural British chapter of the Alyn charity bike ride through the lush verdant rolling landscapes of the Chiltern Hills in southeast England. The man is clearly indefatigable. “It will be a busy time,” he says with more than a touch of understatement.
One of the innovations in the seemingly endless Alyn charity-oriented activity line is AdrenAlyn, a running group for the physically challenged children rehabilitated at Alyn, the members of which are due to complete the five-km. section of next year’s Jerusalem Marathon. “We are also doing skydiving, getting people to jump out of a plane, for Alyn, around Passover time, and there’s the ride in England,” says Wizman.
Wizman’s current berth represents a major career shift. What coaxed him away from his profitable specialist sports outlet – major 2012 break-in notwithstanding – to take on the spiritually rewarding, but highly demanding position at Alyn? “The Alyn Wheels of Love is a legendary brand name. I knew about it from the other side. As a bike shop owner, I had tons of customers who rode for Alyn and, in fact, the 15th ride made a pit stop at my place.
There were also quite a few riders in my neighborhood, and I donated.”
Meanwhile, Alyn began looking for someone to come up with new avenues of raising funds, and Wizman says he was impressed by the hospital’s professionalism even before he came on board. “To be honest, initially, I wasn’t even remotely interested in a job like this but the [recruitment] process was so intricate that I became intrigued. It became an ego thing. There was a series of 12 interviews, and writing samples.
It was unbelievable.” Alyn clearly takes personnel selection very seriously. “I worked for the largest law firm in the world, and believe me, their interview process is not remotely close to the Alyn process. By contrast, I can say the salary here is not remotely close to what I was getting as a lawyer,” he adds with a chuckle, without a touch of sarcasm.
Where Alyn is concerned, seeing is truly believing, and inescapably enchanting.
“While I was deliberating about the job, they did something brilliant,” Wizman recalls. “They set me up with Brenda [Hirsch, the resource development department director].
Brenda is one of the most spectacularly warm and, you’d have to say, manipulative people you could ever meet. Once they’d set me up with her, they knew I was putty in their hands.”
Hirsch duly introduced Wizman to the street-level goings on at the hospital, and took him on a tour of the place.
“One of the remarkable things about this place is that there’s no gap between the marketing hype and reality,” he notes. It seems that even hard-nosed veteran media professionals are not immune to the Alyn effect. “For the Jerusalem Marathon, ESPN [sports TV channel] did a whole segment about me.
They followed me around for a week, and they also came with me to Alyn.”
They got more than they bargained for. “They saw a seven-year-old Arab girl who had been very badly burned in a bus accident – five people died in that accident. Her facial features were in quite a state, and she had stumps for arms. There’s this guy downstairs, Ehud, who’s a mechanical genius. His whole job is to design things to address the particular disabilities of the kids here. He designed special scissors for this girl so she was able to use her stump to cut during an arts and crafts class.
The ESPN guys saw this, and they just lost it. They were bawling like babies.”
Coexistence inevitably seeped into our conversation, and Wizman says that one of the things that really pulled him to Alyn was seeing a haredi (ultra- Orthodox) kid with leg braces pushing an Arab kid in a wheelchair. “I was amazed to see that, but that says everything about Alyn. When a kid comes in here, any religious or other differences come off. It is just about making these kids’ lives better.”
Right now, Wizman is up to his eyebrows in keeping preparations for the forthcoming charity ride on course, but he says he never loses touch with the bottom line. “It was a bit of a tough transition for me to come here, but every day I take 10 minutes to walk around in the treatment part of the hospital, and I think ‘now I know why I’m here.’” DR. MAURIT BEERI has been at Alyn for quite some time longer than Wizman, and appears as fired up over her job as she probably was when she first came on board. Beeri is director-general of the hospital and, like Wizman, says she never loses sight of what it’s all about and why she comes to work every day. “This is an island of cooperation and sanity. People come here and they check in their national anger and where they’ve come from at the door.
We have about 350 people working here and about 250 kids. They come from the settlements, from Palestinian villages and from Gaza. It’s about childhood, it’s about well-being, it’s about cooperation.”
Like Wizman, Beeri says she gets tons of job satisfaction. “I just feel so lucky to work here. This is a place where childhood is the main thing and we are all here to enable these kids to experience childhood.
With all their difficulties, they might end up as patients, cases, burdens, problems. But they are children,” Beeri states simply. “They need to be children.
You get this energy from the kids. They are saying, just give us a chance to be children and we’ll show you. They teach us. Every day there’s a new lesson to be learned from these kids.”
Thanks to the pedal power, determination and fund-raising efforts of more than 600 riders – including cyclists who have made the considerable time and financial investment to come here from 17 countries – there should be around another $3 million making their way to the Alyn Hospital coffers, to enable Beeri and her devoted staff to continue giving children and youth of all colors, races and creeds the chance to enjoy a full and joyful life.