On March 2nd, 35 cyclists found themselves alongside the Dead Sea doing something they never imagined — helping raise money for Israelis with limb-loss. The 155 kilometer “Gran Fondo” took them along sweeping desert vistas and daunting mountain climbs but the toughest challenge faced was by those that inspired them and joined them along the way.
One of the riders who joined was a 15 year-old girl named Chaya, a Jerusalem native who is wheelchair-bound due to her stunted legs and paralyzed from the waist down. But her motto is “No legs, no problem!” And indeed, using a handcycle, she rode 100 kilometers of the route including the formidable climb up the steep winding switchback of Ma’ale Akrabim, a perilous 3.5 kilometer climb with steep dropoffs and no guardrails.
Ever the champion, Chaya undertook this challenge, not for herself, but rather to help raise awareness and money so that others could walk again with the help of prosthesis. Her unbridled enthusiasm and bubbly personality attracted the attention of Paz Bash, a top Israeli professional cyclist with several wins under her belt who was inspired by the spunky teenager that refuses to give up despite her disability. Paz, who later that weekend placed first in the women’s category, rode with Chaya along the Dead Sea Gran Fondo route, to guide her protege that she has personally undertaken to train.
There to support riders along the way and at rest stops were two wonderful young women named Osnat H. and Tehila C., who themselves suffer from limb-loss, as well as many family members from the organization. They greeted the rides, helped them refuel, and encouraged them to keep pedaling.
Due to a terrorist bombing, Tehila lost both her legs at age eight. With the help of the Next Step organization, Tehila will soon receive a new set of advanced prosthetics that will enable her to walk more naturally and replace the crude ones she presently uses and which tire her quickly during her day-job as a social worker. But that didn't stop Tehila that day! She was walking around and helped distribute drinks and energy bars for the cyclists that made their way over Ma’ale Akrabim.
Osnat, who hails from a family of 12 in Bnei Brak was the star of the trip. If any of the riders come back from this trip with one bright memory, it’s of the young woman who just 4 months ago had her life turned upside-down in a multi-vehicle car accident and several days later woke up in a hospital to learn that she lost her cousin, her sister, and her left leg from above the knee. With the help of the Next Step, she visited the United States this past February and was fitted with an advanced prosthetic that enables her to walk again.
Osnat, who works in the fashion industry, is not shy at all about her new reality and, to the contrary, she has embraced it. During her February trip to the US, she visited Magen David Yeshivah elementary school in Brooklyn, NY to address an auditorium packed with rapt children who listened to her words of encouragement. The upper grades were inspired by her story and committed to help fundraise - which they did superbly. Her perseverance was adequately demonstrated and quite surprising when over the beautiful Shabbat we spent together at a Jerusalem hotel, she walked back and forth twice to Kotel HaMa’aravi, the Western Wall, and both times refusing assistance, a wheelchair or a car ride for either ‘leg’ of the trip.
On extended group rides where camaraderie and friendly words typically provide the encouragement to push through the sheer physical exertion, Shlomi Aiger, Michael Kasanelson and Ofer Shtal —all amputees— physically helped push along some of the struggling riders at the back of the pack as they rode along us with their self-fashioned riding prosthetics.
Over the course of five days we met some incredibly inspiring people both young & old, toured Masada & the Dead Sea area, a few even rode from the Dead Sea’s -430.5m elevation (-1,412 ft) up to Jerusalem where we all spent an engaging Shabbat with the company of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (yes, even he rode!).
The ride was organized by Shoshana Dessler-Jacobs and Sam Waldman of the Next Step (הצעד הבא), a division of the Israel Medical Fund, a non-profit organization strongly dedicated to helping Israelis of all ages and backgrounds facing such challenges. They both advocate for, directly help amputees obtain advanced prosthetics and undertake the critical role of providing rehabilitation, both physical and mental for those coping with these disabilities and the social support crucial to that task.
Approximately 1,600 people undergo amputation in Israel annually. Limb loss refers to any level of amputation: partial finger to full upper and/or lower extremity. While limb loss is mostly an orthopedic issue, it often results in full disability and affects normal family and social status. The exorbitant cost of prosthetics is also prohibitive to most families struggling with the regular household burdens. And that’s before therapy.
Rehabilitation is no “walk in the park” either. While the ride took most six hours to complete- one can now begin to appreciate what it means for Osnat whom faces six hours of grueling therapy sessions every day (and for the foreseeable future).
Isaac B. a cyclist hailing from NYC reminisces fondly about the final section of the ride, when forced to do roadside repairs due to mechanical issues, he looked up and caught a glimpse of a smiling Ofer Shtal flying by and overtaking him shortly before the finish line. But it didn’t matter because, at the end of the day, they were all winners in their shared mission to help others in need.
The Next Step and the Israel Medical Fund is an IRS-recognized 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. To learn more about the organization please visit http://thenextstep.org.il/en/