Harley Davidson riders take scenic tour of Holy Land

Not your everyday pilgrimage: Group of 71 tattooed pilgrims express their appreciation for Israel and the IDF on bike trip.

Harley Davidson motorcycle riders in Jerusalem 311  (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Harley Davidson motorcycle riders in Jerusalem 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
It’s not every day you see a few dozen American bikers reciting kiddush in the Western Wall plaza, or anywhere for that matter.
Nonetheless, there they were late Sunday afternoon, a group of more than 70 Christian Harley Davidson enthusiasts from across the United States, taking part in their own rather unique pilgrimage to Israel.
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Organized Christian tours are as common to Israel as chicken dinners and nosy inlaws, but this week’s “Run for the Wall Israel” had a style we don’t see too often around these parts.
The group of 71 pilgrims were brought to Israel by the Amarillo, Texas-based Christian ministry “M25: Mission of Hope,” in conjunction with “Coral Tours” and the Tourism Ministry.
On Sunday afternoon they stood at the Kotel and prayed for safety of Israel and the Jewish people, and held a moment of silence for those who have fallen in Israel’s and America’s wars. They also passed around crackers and grape juice before reciting the traditional blessings of kiddush on wine and hamotzi on bread. They drew no shortage of curious glares, but for the most part they were greeted by smiling locals and tourists, who posed for pictures with the grizzled pilgrims.
The group was heavily Texan, with around 20 bikers from Amarillo and smaller panhandle towns like nearby Skellytown and Borger. The patches on their jackets bore a wide-range of nicknames from the mundane like “Ed” to more intriguing like “Bootlegger Red,” “Sheepdog,” “The Menace,” “Terminator,” and “Bugslide.”
The wide-open plains of the Texas Panhandle and the friendly driving culture of the Lone Star state are worlds away from the crowded roads and cutthroat drivers of the Holy Land, a fact that wasn’t lost on Pastor Gary Burd of M25.
“The traffic has been challenging, it’s not the United States, they’re more aggressive drivers than we are in the States,” the pastor offered, in a diplomatic critique of the Israeli driver.
He added, “when they honk, we start moving.”
Lucky for the bikers, they’ve had a police escort guide them on the trip so far. By the time the 10-day trip leaves on Thursday, they will have ridden across the country to Caesarea, Nazareth, Mount Carmel, the Kinneret, the Golan Heights and down to Masada, Ein Gedi and elsewhere in the Negev.
Before heading to Jerusalem, the group met outside the Armored Corps Museum at Latrun, a site of pivotal battles during the 1948 and 1967 wars, which Burd said had special meaning to the riders.
“We chose Latrun because of the military importance. We came over here to make a statement that we appreciate the IDF and all the armed forces. We’re just some patriots from America and some military people. We wanted to come over as Christians to say thanks to the IDF because they have been so good about keeping this land free so we can come and visit it.”
Burd said the visit to Israel was in a sense a continuation of the group’s yearly coast-to-coast ride from California to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, where he said they pay homage to American servicemen who fell in the Vietnam War and those POWs (prisoners of war) and MIAs (missing in action) who never made it home.
He said the group also came to give humanitarian aid to Israel, bringing over $600,000 in medical aid that they passed on to an Israeli NGO, potentially making the visit Israel’s first “HOGtilla” (“Biketilla”?) if you wanted to call it that.
The group appeared to have an appreciation for all things military, wearing jackets emblazoned with US service patches and the iconic “POW-MIA you are not forgotten patch,” and posing for pictures with IDF soldiers repeatedly. The soldiers at times appeared a bit amused by the sudden outpouring of admiration from heavily-tattooed perfect strangers wearing sleeveless leather motorcycle vests, but seemed happy to have their pictures taken regardless.
Israeli guide and motorcycle enthusiast Sa’ar Shapir has been showing the group around Israel on their trip so far, and said they are “amazing people, they get so excited to be here in the Holy Land and they just get excited from every thing. They see soldiers and they honk and wave and smile and they just get a kick out of everything.”
Shapir, who the pilgrims nicknamed “U-turn” for his habit of getting lost and taking the bikers on last second Uturns to right their path, appeared to express a real appreciation for the outpouring of support from the bikers, which genuinely seemed to lack any sense of cynicism or ulterior sales motive.
Haim Gutin, The Tourism Ministry’s commissioner for North and South America said the ministry helped the bikers work out the logistics of their trip, and assisted them in the months-long process of shipping their bikes to Israel. Gutin said they also helped them jump the bureaucratic hurdles at the Ashdod port, and helped the bikers make their way through customs with their Harleys.
According to Gutin, the trip is part of the Tourism Ministry’s efforts to bring every North American Christian to Israel once in their lives.
Such a trip, in Gutin’s words “changes their lives, they see the Bible come to life before their very eyes.”
He also expressed his feeling that such visits foster greater solidarity and appreciation between Israelis and their Christian supporters in the United States.
The crowd at Latrun and the motorcade that traveled to the Western Wall was joined by a very large contingent from Israel’s small community of Harley Davidson owners.
One of those hometown Harley riders at Latrun on Sunday was Yuky Cohen, 46, of Hod Hasharon, who was wearing a leather vest covered in a patch that read “Sons of Anarchy – Israel,” an homage to the FX series detailing the life and times of an outlaw motorcycle gang from northern California.
Cohen, who said the SOAIsrael chapter is completely law-abiding, said he is one of only around 800 Harley Davidson owners in Israel, a close-knit group that feels a sense of kinship with one another.
According to Cohen, this sense of kinship is what brought him to Latrun on Sunday.
“Usually whenever people who ride Harleys meet, they’re brothers. If I see someone riding a Harley in Israel, there’s no way I won’t pull over. If someone rides a Harley, you know they’re OK.”