The finish line is close for Israeli Tom Peled, who on Monday will complete a three-month, 3,000-mile bike journey to raise money and awareness for cancer research in Israel.
Peled’s trek, which began in August in Los Angeles, is part of a greater initiative that the young Israeli has branded Bike for the Fight (BFF).
The 24-year-old from Kfar Achim, between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, is raising money for the Israel Cancer Research Fund (ICRF). As part of his travels, Peled and a three-member team have been pedaling to Jewish communities, college campuses, summer camps and major sporting events, sharing his personal story and mission at each stop.
So far, Peled has raised $80,000, and said he expects to reach $100,000 by the conclusion of his trip. He’ll celebrate the end of the ride Monday with a concert featuring popular Israeli singer-songwriter David Broza at Mana Contemporary, a Middle Eastern art gallery in New York City.
Peled created BFF in response to the loss of his father, Ramy Peled, who died of a rare form of cancer in January 2011, at age 58. “I was a wreck,” Peled recalled. He initially channeled his grief into a 3000-mile bike ride through Europe, sharing his story with people he met along the way. It was during that trip that the idea of raising money and cancer awareness on a grander scale started to take form.
‘I didn’t want to do this by myself or with just my friends on Facebook,’ Peled says. ‘I wanted thousands of people to know about what I was doing to try to make a change’
“Every day on the bike ride, I got a new idea,” Peled said. “I didn’t want to do this by myself or with just my friends on Facebook. I wanted thousands of people to know about what I was doing to try to make a change.”
After arriving back in Israel, Peled began to convert his vision into a plan of action. Inspired by Livestrong, the anti-cancer charity founded by Lance Armstrong, he decided to bike across the United States, where he believed the Jewish community would embrace his fundraising and awareness efforts.
“Exactly one year ago, I started this process,” Peled said. “I had no business background, no college degree, no money. I didn’t know with who, what, or when I would do this; I only had the why. I wanted to make something negative into a positive.”
Peled said that his ability to put the US project together had a lot to do with the size and collaborative culture of his homeland. Israel “is a small country; everyone knows everyone,” he said. “I started with a small group of my father’s friends, and we developed a concept.”
The project began to take shape after Peled was introduced to Eric Heffler, the executive director of ICRF, a non-profit organization with chapters across North America. ICRF agreed to sponsor the ride and host events for BFF along the route.
“After ICRF joined us, it was a snowball effect,” Peled said. “More [organizations] came onboard, and slowly a plan formed.”
With funds in hand, Peled started to put together a team to accompany him on the long ride. The first person he reached out to was childhood friend Eran Rozen, 25, a classmate at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya who would become the project’s manager. Next was professional Ironman triathlete Roey Peleg, 27, who met Peled at a fundraiser in Israel. The two became friends, and Peleg agreed to join the project as the head of navigation and safety.
The final, sole female member of the team is Luca Seres, 24, who immigrated to Israel from Hungary three years ago. In a chance encounter six months ago at an IDC library, Peled introduced himself, then showed Seres his PowerPoint presentation on the project. Seres, who hopes to become a documentary filmmaker, was looking for a topic. Thanks to their “meeting of destiny,” as she calls it now, she found her subject, and Peled had his social media director.
Since leaving LA, BFF has staged events across North America, partnering with a variety of Jewish and non-Jewish organizations and communities. Earlier this month, Peled and his team made a stop in Washington, DC, for events at George Washington University’s Hillel and the Israeli Embassy.
At the university, the Student Alliance for Israel co-sponsored an event with the school’s cycling team, which joined the BFF cyclists for a ride through the city after a presentation by Peled. Similar events and partnerships have taken place throughout the journey, which has included stops in Omaha, Memphis, Chicago and Toronto.
Along the way, Peled has partnered with organizations including Hillel, Macabbi World Union, and local JCCs and Jewish Federations. Corporate supporters include Microsoft Israel, which created an app for the ride, as well as El Al, GU Energy Gel and Hertz Rent-a-Car. “I’ve never seen so many Jewish, intercommunal and organizational partnerships.” Heffler said. “There is a universality to this project.”
At the same time, Bike for the Fight has resulted in more than simply raising cancer awareness, Seres said. The ride is also “non-traditional hasbara [positive public relations for Israel],” she noted.
“I’m not talking about Israel’s right to exist” during the ride, “or doing something for the government. I’m supporting something that makes Israel so special: technology, science, research.”
While the trip has unfolded in the US, Peled said that those back home have been among the most excited about the project. The ride has attracted significant support and attention in Israel, where Channel 10 recently aired a lengthy feature on the initiative, Peled said.
The ride provides ‘non-traditional’ PR for Israel, one participant says, even if that’s not the point
Before heading to the US, the team received a warm sendoff from President Shimon Peres and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.
“In the States, [a charitable bike ride] is popular. We aren’t the first group to do something like this. But in Israel, people are fascinated,” he said.
The ICRF’s Heffler said that the success of BFF has come largely due to Peled’s commitment and personal motivation. Seres echoed his comments, saying she would not have taken part without him.
“Soon after I met Tom, I realized he was a leader,” she said. “It’s the way he talks to people, involves people in what he is doing. He has created something big.”
As Peled nears the finish line of his months-long journey, he says that this particular ride was just the beginning for BFF. The organization has grown beyond serving as a way for him to contend with his private loss, he says, though he adds that his personal experience continues to drive his efforts.
“My father taught me to always look into my future,” he said. “In the future, we can hope to bring less suffering. His sacrifice, his suffering have led to something good and positive. His energy is still here, even if he is not here physically.”
After the ride, Peled will return to his life as a student at the IDC’s Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy. He and the team will then begin to plan for Bike for the Fight 2013, which may expand to include a ride in Israel.
In an email to followers, Peled wrote that the project “has all become bigger than us, bigger than we could ever imagine, and there is no stop.”