Rabbi Ari Solomont thinks a bike is a perfect vehicle for raising money earmarked to benefit good causes.
The Hashmonaim, Israel, resident’s recently launched Cycle for Unity (cycleforunity.org) is in gear to revolutionize Jewish activism and philanthropy. He rolled out this initiative to get young adults and professionals excited about connecting to charities, both Jewish and ecumenical, through inspirational and challenging cycling adventures.
Rabbi Solomont said Cycle for Unity is the first-ever nonprofit organization utilizing physical fitness and leadership training to promote the culture of Jewish philanthropy. More than 130 riders from Israel, the United States, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Australia took part in the first series of rides in Israel during Passover. Registration for multiday rides requires a commitment to raise money for charity.
“I’ve had the privilege of working with great Jewish organizations,” said Rabbi Solomont. “Most organizations’ greatest need is fundraising, and they hire fundraisers to target the large donors. But because there are so many causes, donors are really inundated with requests. So I tried to address the fact that we need to bring more people into the fundraising process as givers and getters.”
He studied fundraising models and discovered that experiential events such as marathons, bikathons and walkathons tend to be very successful.
“But I’m not a competitive person, and I didn’t want to negatively affect others’ efforts or re-create the wheel,” he explained. “I started thinking how to open up this model to a wider audience where everyone can benefit.”
The result is Cycle for Unity, a rider’s choice model, which allows people to participate for the benefit of any of several charities. There are more than 40 formally involved now, including Baltimore-based The Jewish Caring Network, Camp Shoresh and the Bus 19 Project, but any legitimate nonprofit can join in at the suggestion of a rider.
“A lot of adults like bike riding, and these types of events are the wave of the philanthropic future,” said Rabbi Solomont. “Cycle for Unity has the potential to help a lot of organizations in a way that doesn’t take away from any other initiative. If everyone participates together, people can learn about different organizations that are all doing good and important things — a cross-pollination that benefits everybody.”
Approaching 10 people for a donation of $250 each is much more effective than writing a check for $2,500, he explained.
“You’ve just made 10 more people aware of the organization and why it is meaningful to you. That is more helpful in the long term,” he said.
Solomont is planning a 10-day Romanian bike trip this summer and rides during sukkot. He also planned a December ride in Israel and a summer 2014 Ride of My Life through Jewish history-saturated European cities such as Prague, Vienna, Budapest and Krakow. Each adventure will be kosher and can accommodate between 25 and 40 cyclists.
“It fits my personality, my appr-oach to philanthropy — trying not just to do a mitzvah but to get others involved, too,” said Rabbi Solomont. “Our programs aren’t one-hit wonders. People have to work hard for a cause, and so they become passionate about it and get others to feel the same way.”
He would like to see Cycle for Unity as an optional activity for the vast Taglit-Birthright alumni program, NEXT, as an alternative to traditional Jewish programming.
Rabbi Solomont is targeting what he calls “kinesthetic Jews,” who actively seek self-improvement and expression through a combination of physical challenges, community service, advocacy and philanthropy.
“We accomplish this by combining incredible cycling experiences with advanced leadership training, moderated discussions on Jewish thought, guided tours of Jewish heritage sites and a profound emphasis on giving,” he said.
Rabbi Solomont is the son-in-law of Dr. Robert and Marjorie Edelman of Baltimore. He is a former nursing home administrator and the regional executive director for the Orthodox Union’s NCSY youth movement. Today, Rabbi Solomont is director of Yeshiva University’s Israel program.
Rabbi Solomont, his wife and four children made aliyah 10 years ago. In Israel, he began working for Ner L’Elef, a program that trains and places young rabbis to do outreach work all over the world. There, he gained international contacts that have come in handy with Cycle for Unity.
“Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am most passionate about cycling, charity and Jewish education. In fact, it was only a matter of time before I found a way to combine them,” he said.
As a born-and-bred American, he finds it easiest to target English speakers, though Israelis are always welcome to join in.
“Cycle for Unity is not an exclusive program. It’s not an ideology but a hope and a dream to have something that really reflects what our community is and be beneficial to everybody,” said Rabbi Solomont. “There is so much that divides us, so if we can find something that unites us, it will really be Cycle for Unity.”
In The Footsteps of Giants
Chol HaMoed Sukkot Family Cycling Adventure
Sunday, Sept. 22, 4 to 6:30 p.m.
The Sculpture Trail – Tzora Forest (outside of Jerusalem)
Sunset On The Jordan
Chol HaMoed Cycling Adventure
Monday, Sept. 23 , 4 to 6:30 p.m.*
To learn more and register for either of these events, go to cycleforunity.org.
*Time is subject to change.