Of Hebrews and Harleys

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Detroit Jewish biker gang is always ready to rumble.

In 1994, Sy Freilich was a man in his mid-to-late 40s looking for a few riding buddies to hit the open road with. Since few of his friends had motorcycles, or an inclination to get one, he put an ad in the Detroit Jewish News looking for other latent (and law-abiding) Hells Angels, trapped in the body of a Goldman, Blumberg or Rothstein.

More than 15 years later, what started as a five-man meet-up on summer Sunday mornings has grown into a riding group nearly 40-strong.

During the riding season — from May through September — members of the Chai Riders meet every Sunday morning in the Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot on Orchard Lake Road in Farmington Hills. On Hondas, Yamahas, Harley Davidsons and BMWs, they decide which secondary roads to ride for a few hours, before stopping for breakfast, and riding some more.

People join for the riding as well as for the people, said Freilich, now 63. “There’s a lot of camaraderie, a lot of teasing and, over the years, some really, really good friendships have developed.”

A businessman who owns a water-testing laboratory in White Lake, Freilich said the bikers in the group come from all walks of life. “We’ve got doctors and dentists and lawyers and accountants; we have electricians and plumbers, and we have businessmen,” he said. “We’ve got a good cross-section of people and virtually everyone lives in the Farmington, West Bloomfield or Commerce area.”

It’s also a nice mix Jewishly, said Freilich of the club, attracting bikers who might well dress in black leather but also study Talmud twice a week.

In addition to Sunday rides, the group meets on Wednesday nights in Royal Oak for Bike Night, where several hundred bikes are parked up and down Main Street. “It’s a real show and we’ll go there; maybe we’ll have some dinner, walk around, look at all the bikes — and at the girls — and just hang out,” said Freilich. Later in the evening, a night ride is in order.

In the winter, the group meets for breakfast at a local restaurant, and a number of the riders go to the pistol range and shoot shotguns. The guys also have an annual winter dinner with their wives, “where we say ‘thank you’ for letting us ride every week,” said Freilich. There are also a few women who ride with the group, he added.

Freilich said he’d like to see more young people join the Chai Riders, but added that the group prefers to ride with experienced riders and will not ride with unlicensed riders. “We want to get them involved in our activities; we know they’ll have a good time. We’ll take ’em to roads they’ve never been on before, enjoyable rides, and they’ll meet some nice people.”

It’s also a way to get involved with giving back to the community, he said. The organization identifies opportunities during the year where it can make a difference, he explained, giving the 2008 Detroit Maccabi Games at the Palace of Auburn Hills as one example. “We roared in on our motorcycles to open the event, and the crowd went crazy.”

The group also sponsors an author every year at the Jewish Book Fair, usually choosing a book with a Holocaust-related theme. The riders attend the presentation, take the author out to dinner, help with transportation and might even take the author for a spin on a bike, if he or she were so inclined, Freilich said.

Farrell Reis, who owns a beauty salon in downtown Birmingham, was driving to a bagel shop to get a cup of coffee seven or eight years ago when he saw the group convening outside. He pulled over to chat, and “they asked if I rode motorcycles, struck up a conversation about the gold mezuzah I wears on a chain around my neck (which he’s been doing since age 13) and the rest is history,” he said. “That was the initiation. All you had to be was Jewish and ride a motorcycle.”

Reis said he was surprised to learn how many Jewish motorcycle riders there are both at home and around the world. “But there are plenty of them out there,” he said.

The Chai Riders are in fact part of an umbrella organization of Jewish bikers, the Jewish Motorcycle Association, a group of motorcycle clubs spanning the United States, Canada, England, Australia and Israel. The JMA’s website lists 42 location-based chapters, and also features information about the annual Ride to Remember, an annual fundraising ride held each year near Holocaust Memorial Day, focused on Holocaust remembrance and giving back to promote Holocaust education.

Fifteen Detroit riders, Reis among them, left May 10 for Virginia Beach, Va., riding the more than 750 miles each way on secondary roads to attend this year’s event. On the way, they stopped to look at covered bridges, war memorials and other points of interest.

The ride was a welcome challenge against the elements, with a definite and important destination in mind.

In addition to the general excitement of riding beautiful, open roads, smelling the cut lawns and the burning leaves, which are easy to miss in a car with the air conditioning on, Reis said the Ride to Remember is special because it combines the joy of motorcycling and the value of fundraising for the local communities. “Our group wants to be helpful to others and support our Jewish faith and history,” he said. “It has all that meaning to us.”

At the event, visiting riders take part in scenic rides hosted by local club members and events run by the local Jewish community. They make a stop at the local Holocaust center and also make donations to the area’s Holocaust education programming.

Reis said he was very surprised on his first Ride to Remember to see so many motorcyclists from around the world, some of who didn’t speak English. “I was very pleasantly surprised to see Jewish bikers coming to support the cause from Paris, from Italy, from South Africa, Toronto, Montreal,” he said. “It takes you away from the feeling of just being local to being worldwide.”

Jack Pesis, a dentist from Farmington Hills, has been riding with the Chai Riders for more than a decade. Though he’s also part of other biking groups, there’s something different about being in a Jewish group, he said. “They’re more involved in one another’s lives and more tightly knit.

“I enjoy their friendship and their camaraderie and the fact that we can share our Jewish experiences with one another,” he said, recalling a Passover seder they shared at a group member’s home. “That was nice.”

Riding is a very solitary activity in which each rider is responsible for himself, Pesis said. But in a group like this one, he added, everyone is also responsible for one another.

So they ride, and they wear the emblems — large Stars of David — that show they’re Jewish bikers with pride, said group founder Freilich.

“Many people say, ‘Jewish bikers? I never heard of such a thing,’” said Freilich. Even though some of the bikers were nervous at first about identifying themselves as Jewish bikers so publicly, in the end they felt a sense of pride, he said.

“When we go to a biker event and we wear our shirts and vests and jackets that identify us as Jews, we get respect,” said Freilich. “The non-Jewish bikers look at us and they can see we’re proud to be Jewish, and they respect that.”

As for tattoos, he said, Jews are prohibited from getting them. One or two people might have them, “but it’s not prevalent, and it’s not obvious.” Unlike the giant Jewish stars. RT

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