Thursday, May 07, 2009

Saving the world with two wheels

Jerusalem is a tremendously hilly city, yet, as our bus plodded its way through some of the city's most crowded neighborhoods on its way to the central bus station last night, I was cheered to see people on bikes -- some of them wearing the kippah that marks the religious, male Jew -- winding their way through the dense traffic on narrow streets.

One thing that makes Jerusalem doable by bike (despite the challenges of the hills, etc.) is it's actually amazingly compact compared to America's sprawling cities. Even Jerusalem's most far-flung neighborhoods are only about six miles from the city center, and most people's commutes are much shorter. Many Americans, on the other hand, find themselves commuting dozens of miles in each direction every day.

This more-compact nature of Israeli cities is just one of the many ways Israel has set itself up in a way that makes a more sustainable, and environmentally friendly, lifestyle possible, and is a reminder that there is much we can learn from the way Israelis approach life.

That is not to say that Israelis are more environmentally conscious than we are. I was reminded of this last Shabbat when we were in Mitzpeh Ramon as part of the Hazon-Arava environmental bike ride trip. I stepped outside the prayer service for a moment to get some air and think alone. It was so beautiful to look out towards the huge desert crater -- an inspiring example of God's works. But below my feet were the cigarette butts and other garbage that Israelis seem to feel free to dump anywhere. As one of the speakers on the trip told us, environmental consciousness is only beginning among the general population in a country where security concerns have long been paramount. He held out hope to us that things are changing, however -- as evidenced by the recent election in Tel Aviv of some environmentalists to city government -- and Israel is growing to be more consciously concerned about preserving some elements of the quality of life, and not just the preserving of life.

I was so glad to have a chance to contribute something back to Israel with two wheels (by participating in -- and raising money for -- an environmental bike ride). The bicycle has never been just a means of recreation for me. When I was a kid, I had a paper route, and I hauled my papers with a bicycle that had baskets on its sides and to which my Dad (of blessed memory) had jury-rigged a folding shopping cart as a trailer. I rediscovered the bike as a means of carrying cargo (groceries and such) while an adult in Los Angeles, and have continued that practice even amid the hills and winter winds of Reading, PA. I try to cast for myself in Reading a life more like the one I am able to have here in Jerusalem, a life where things are only a few steps -- or a few pedals -- away, and I do not have to get into some gasoline-burning and carbon-fume-expelling device every day.

Heschel talked about the glory of Shabbat as Judaism's great solution to the dangers of technological civilization. Shabbat does not ask us to abandon the benefits of technology -- we get to work for six days -- only not to be dominated by it, to be able to live free amid it. Those five riding days from sea to sea and inside the great emptiness of the Negev desert were a reminder that there is another way than living dominated by technology, and of how two wheels can help free us to be able to live free. I was so grateful to be a part of it, and hope to keep learning from it.

[X-posted to smamitayim]

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