GLEN SPEY, N.Y.—A band of 413 men biked 180 miles from Stanford, Connecticut, through New Jersey, to Camp Simcha in Glen Spey, New York. When they triumphantly rode across the finish line through a crowd of thousands on Aug. 6, they also brought with them an invisible force—compassion, and almost $6 million.
The Bike 4 Chai riders were mostly Jewish businessmen, professionals, and family guys, hailing from places nearby like Brooklyn and New Jersey, and place more faraway, like Los Angeles, Canada, and Israel. They put their hearts and souls into raising money for a completely free summer camp for children with difficult illnesses such as cancer and with special needs and disabilities.
“Between July 2nd and August 2nd, we clocked 650 miles in training,” said David Chutter from Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “On a good year we’re knocking out 1,500 to 2,000 miles in training.”
Camp Simcha, which is Hebrew for happiness, is a place for sick children to go and enjoy being children and have the summer of their lives. It is set up with a fully operational hospital and care system to accommodate the children. It is also fully kosher.
Bike 4 Chai (“Chai” means “life” in Hebrew) is organized by Chai Lifeline, an international children’s health support network. Chai’s dozens of programs help sick children and their families cope with the emotional, financial, and social impacts of serious illness.
The scenic two-day bike ride had pit stops in places like Bear Mountain, New York, and Tuxedo Park, New York, on the first day, and day two had them passing through and stopping in Orange County towns including Port Jervis, Otisville, and Sparrow Bush before riding the last mile together into the camp.
They were greeted by around 1,600 family and supporters, a big party, and gourmet BBQ at the gorgeous 125-acre camp nestled in the woods just off the famous Hawk’s Nest scenic drive along the Delaware River on New York’s Route 97.
The first four men to arrive at the Mount Hope Park in Otisville for a refreshment stop breezed in at 9:15 a.m. on the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 5. They included Tour de France cyclists George Hincapie and Christian Vander Velde. Former NFL wide receiver Amani Toomer was another proud rider this year.
It was all started six years ago by a lone rider, Dovid Egert, who raised $10,000 to ride from his hometown of Lakewood, New Jersey, to the camp. The next year he was joined by 39 others, and Bike 4 Chai was born.
Each year they plan a different route, making it as scenic and challenging as possible.
The men gathered donations through their work contacts, families, and communities.
“Most of the riders are higher up in their companies, CEOs. They bring in their own sponsorship through their personal relationships and contacts,” Director of Bike 4 Chai Yoel Margolese said while at the Mount Hope Park in Otisville, en route. Yoel spent all year organizing the event, along with Executive Director Rabbi Sruli Fried, and Producer Mindy Tyner and a support team.
The No. 1 fundraiser this year, Founder of Meridian Capital Group, LLC, Ralph Herzka, raised over $600,000.
“He’s an incredible person, not just at the fundraising, but he does the biking too,” Shimmy Bertram, Treasurer of Chai Lifeline, said.
Jack Eisenberger, owner of Fieldgate Developments in Toronto, raised $416,000, and Moey Shabot, president of Maverick Apparel, raised $217,000, all from the generous donations of people they know. Eleven cyclists in total raised over $100,000 each.
Betram’s own 6-year-old grandson Avrumi Glenner was a camper at Simcha this week, as he suffers from spina bifida. Avrumi’s face was painted and he was grinning from ear to ear while being wheeled around by his counselor and hanging out with his grandfather. The children know all this is for them, and one can see they feel uplifted and happy.
“When somebody rides for us, we know we’re not alone,” Chanoch Rosenburg said in the Bike 4 Chai video, quoting his children who have muscular dystrophy and go to Camp Simcha.
The cyclists said for them, the event is also life changing too. Humbling was a word spoken often around the camp.
“The first year I rode, they gave me a tour of the camp, and I felt very involved after that, this place is amazing,” cyclist Chutter said. He was able to gather $8,600 in donations this year. “The people in my community are very generous.”
This is Chutter’s 4th Bike 4 Chai ride. A friend recommended he do the ride after his mother had died, promising it would change his life.
“When you saw kids with tubes coming out of places you didn’t know tubes could be it’s very humbling, so it’s easy, it doesn’t take much for the riders to become dedicated,” Chutter said, “There’s a waiting list for guys wanting to ride.” Chutter said that at 430 men riding, it feels like they’re almost maxed out.
For many of the cyclists, the pain of the children’s suffering is closer to the heart, with their own children or relatives in the camp with illnesses.
For Shmuel Weitzner and his wife and children from Flatbush, New Jersey, doing the ride is about giving back to the camp and Chai Lifeline after all the support they were given. Their daughter suffered from a brain tumor for four-and-a half years, and Weitzner said the three summers she spent at Camp Simcha before she passed away were wonderful.
“They supported me for three years while my daughter was sick,” Weitzner said after the ride. His wife volunteers at the camp as head of housekeeping, and their other children stay at the camp and help with the campers too.
“It’s a wonderful place … they get two weeks here, away from the hospitals and doctors and have fun,” said Mrs. Weitzner. Her daughter looked forward to it all year. “In hospital she would do anything the doctors told her to so she would get to go to camp.”
‘Greatest Finish Line in the World’
Arriving at the camp and celebrating with the children and being focused on helping them have a happy, carefree time is what helps make Bike 4 Chai The Greatest Finish Line in the World—the event tag line.
Attorney Aaron Stein of Merrick, New York, founding partner of Stein, Farkas & Schwarts, was joyfully greeted at the finish line by his proud daughter Ilisa Klapper and granddaughter Evelyn from Scarsdale.
“The ride was unbelievable, this is the greatest finish line in the world,” Stein said. “My partner Jeffrey Shwartz also rode. My other partner Farkas has come every year to camp for the last 10 years with his family. He’s an EMT and volunteers two sessions a year. His wife and kids volunteer here too.”
Stein, who was riding for the fourth time, raised over $15,000, and Schwartz raised over $10,000.
The $5.8 million donated this year “will cover a major portion of the New Jersey and summer camp budget,” Bertram said. Bertram has been involved with Chai Lifeline for 20 years, and said it services over 4,000 families worldwide.
“We’re helping families of sick children,” Bertram said. He noted that life for families with chronically ill children gets turned upside down, and they endure a great amount of stress. “It [camp] allows parents of sick children to have a little peace and a break.”
“To be able to raise this much money for the children and families of Chai Lifeline is truly incredible. These children deal with so much and to be able to give them the gift of Camp Simcha is a blessing in and of itself. The event was a huge success on every level and we are proud to help make such a difference in so many lives,” wrote Mangolese in an email after the event was completed.
The camp is a high-cost operation—it even has a heli-pad. But the high cost delivers an incredible gift.
The riders hope the children’s happy memories will help see them through the many days of painful medical treatment and lifelong limitations they may face.
Children bound to wheelchairs get to fly at Camp Simcha, literally—there’s a zip-line the children are hooked up to if they’re brave enough. The camp wants the children to feel that with the backing of a loving community the sky’s the limit.