Jake Gering: Biking the Holy Land

As Jake Gering sped downhill on his bike, the chilly morning air whipped his face. The lanky 15-year-old from Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, knew that one minor mistake could spell disaster. "I tried not to focus on how fast I was going," he says, but hurtling along at 40 mph took his breath away. And so did the scenery along the road from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea: "Bedouins and their dusty camels were a blur as we raced past them," Jake recalls. "But suddenly, in the distance, we saw the Dead Sea shimmering through the afternoon haze. It was the first 'wow' experience on a trip filled with many 'wow' experiences."

Journey of a Lifetime

Jake and his dad joined 174 other riders from around the world last May, to tackle the Arava Institute-Hazon Bike Ride in Israel. Each participant in the week-long, 300-mile trek raised $3,600 to qualify for the ride. The money supports a scholarship fund for Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian students who study desert ecology at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, located at Kibbutz Ketura, near Israel's southern border. Jake had distributed flyers to friends and family, and established an e-mail distribution list, urging donors to support environmental research in Israel and his own journey of a lifetime. "I felt the bike ride would be a unique way not only to see Israel," Jake says, "but also to address Israel's environmental concerns and the political dilemma in the Middle East." (Next year's bike rides in Israel will be May 20 and November 11, 2008.)

Steep Climbs and Soothing Shabbat

The demanding bike ride met all of Jake's expectations. Rising before dawn each day, he biked past historic sites, such as Mount Scopus, Masada, and the Dead Sea; he descended into Makhtesh Hagadol (one of five craters formed by water erosion in the Negev desert) and triumphantly conquered the steep climb out of it; he celebrated Shabbat and Havdalah at the crater's peak, where he marveled at its undulating basin, rippled with chalky white, brown, and faded purple sediment; he prayed in the wilderness as wild ibex watched from the hillsides; and he learned firsthand about water management in the Dead Sea basin. "I really experienced Israel close-up," he says, "which helped me make a connection with the land." Simply put, biking through Israel changed Jake's life. "Before my trip, Israel seemed somewhat distant," he admits, "but now I've really bonded with the country. Eventually, I would like to live here."