Rabbi’s bicycling benefit for St. Louis shul will spotlight WWII heroism

Rabbi Ze’ev Smason of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion will bike 50 miles in loops of Forest Park for the 10th annual Rabbi Ride Around fundraiser.  

BY DAVID BAUGHER, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Rabbinic traditions usually call for more exercise of the mind than of the body, but for Ze’ev Smason of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion, that’s not always the case.

“I got this harebrained idea 10 years ago and wanted to do it both as a way of involving our congregation and appreciating the importance of exercise,” said Smason, rabbi of the Orthodox congregation in Olivette.

Indeed, this year will mark a decade of Smason’s “Rabbi Ride Around,” which will see the shul’s spiritual leader bicycling 50 miles in a path that orbits Forest Park. The Aug. 26 event aims to raise money for the synagogue’s educational programs (see infobox at bottom of page for full event details). Last year’s ride brought in about $15,000 from sponsoring participants, he said.

“It has grown over the years to the point where it has become one of our biggest events over the course of the year,” Smason  said.

ADVERTISEMENT

But the ride also acts as a social gathering. As the rabbi rides, congregants will enjoy a picnic, bike-themed raffle, face-painting and other activities.

“It’s going to be a fun time,” said ride chairwoman Faye Cohen McCary, who recalled when her son did an origami table one year. 

“Soon, he had 10 adults sitting around his table, watching him,  and he showed them how to make these frogs that jumped when you pressed on them,” she said.

There also will be attendance prizes and balloon entertainers from Way Cool Balloons. Picnickers will enjoy everything from hot dogs to falafel.

But the main event will be the rabbi, who will once again conquer the park’s bike path, a feat he admits involves its share of excitement from unleashed dogs to children wandering onto the course.

“It’s a little like dodgeball when you are riding at the park,” said Smason, who will circle St. Louis’ premiere patch of green space nine times in his ride. “You never know what is going to be lurking around the next corner.”

It also involves a degree of training. August heat is likely to be an issue. Smason said he plans to use various techniques to stay cool and hydrated.

“As we approach the High Holidays, which are coming up in just another month or so, one of the things that I think about is that real pleasure comes when we challenge ourselves, when we push ourselves beyond our comfort zone, set goals and seek to accomplish them,” he said. “I try to challenge my limits rather than limit my challenges.”

Still, the 3½-hour ride can be taxing.

“For some strange reason, and I really don’t know why, each year the miles seem to get a little longer,” Smason laughed.

This year, Smason may have some company on the trail. For the first time, the ride will honor an individual, Gino Bartali, an early 20th century Italian cyclist who twice won the Tour de France. During World War II, Bartali sheltered a Jewish family from the authorities. He’s also credited with saving hundreds of others by smuggling identification documents in his handlebars. 

NHBZ’s recognition of Bartali has attracted the attention of the local Italian-American community, some of whose members have said they may join Smason on the ride.  

“This year’s event has added an additional layer of meaning and importance to us as we have the opportunity to be able to honor someone and hopefully make some new friends,” Smason said.

The rabbi said that 75 to 100 people normally attend the picnic, a number that’s grown over the years due to interest in his cycling.

Synagogue board member Bobby Levine said, “We used to have a summer picnic. That would kind of wax and wane from year to year. Attendance was difficult.”

But Smason brings in the crowds, he said.

“People really have a great time,” Levine said. “When the rabbi comes around, everybody screams and yells as he zooms by on the path.”

Smason said he used to bike quite a bit in his youth but, between family and rabbinic duties, he fell out of the habit. He hopes this month’s ride will promote the vitality of physical fitness.

“They say you never forget how to ride a bike, and that’s true, so I found that I could transform what was simply exercise, which is not a small thing, into something meaningful to be able to engage other people,” he said.

It is all part of being what he calls “an unorthodox Orthodox rabbi” by literally going the extra mile – even if it isn’t a traditional rabbinic duty.

“It’s not in my contract,” Smason joked. “It is also something that I saw as a way of saying that observant Judaism is fun, relevant and meaningful, something people can relate to.”