If you were walking along Tel Aviv’s seaside promenade Monday morning, you probably noticed handsome, silver-haired Gabriel Cordell as he rolled in his wheelchair southward toward Charles Clore Park, the end point of a 100-kilometer journey that had begun four days earlier in Haifa.
Cordell’s route, primarily down Israel’s Highway 4, was far shorter than the one he took in the spring and summer of 2013, when he set a record by rolling 3,100 miles in his every-day, manual wheelchair across the United States in 100 days. But for Cordell, a Palestinian-American whose parents were born in Jerusalem and Ramallah, this journey, which he calls his Roll For Peace, has been no less meaningful.
“I roll to inspire people to live up to their potential, to show them they can do anything they set their mind to,” Cordell told the Times of Israel. “And this roll is also about inspiring peace, compassion and tolerance.”
For Cordell, an actor whose birth name is Suheil Aghabi, the decision to follow up his history-making roll across America with one in Israel was obvious.
“This country is a big part of my family’s life. It’s a personal concern,” he said.
Cordell’s parents, who were married in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, left Israel in the mid-1960s and lived in Jordan and Libya before settling permanently in the United States when Cordell was five years old.
‘This country is a big part of my family’s life. It’s a personal concern’
Growing up in Long Island, New York, Cordell always knew he wanted to be an actor. It was in 1992, as he was driving to his first professional audition in Manhattan that he was involved in a car accident that would leave him paralyzed from just under the chest down.
“I hit a telephone pole with my back and my spinal cord was crushed, leaving me a paraplegic,” he said.
Cordell, 44, worked hard on recovering, and he went back to acting, first in New York and then in Los Angeles, where he has lived since 1998.
For several years, he struggled with substance abuse and addiction. The focus he has put on establishing his Roll With Me non-profit organization and preparing mentally and physically for his inspirational rides has helped keep him clean for some time now.
In Israel for two and half weeks, Cordell and his support team, Derek Gibbs and Chris Yanke, have been hosted by members of the Israeli chapter of Servas, a volunteer-run international, non-governmental, multicultural peace association. They’re staying with Jewish families in Haifa, Kiryat Shmona and Jerusalem, and in the coming days they will also spend time with Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
“This is my first time here. I didn’t really know what to expect, but the more I am here, the more emotional I get,” Cordell said.
“This country is crazy—as in crazy good. The landscape is beautiful and the people are great.”
‘…this roll is…about inspiring peace, compassion and tolerance’
“I think he’s amazing and very inspiring, but unfortunately not all that many people are paying attention to what he his doing. It seems that only negative and provocative stuff gets coverage, not good stuff like this,” said Ruth Sheffer, a Servas member who joined Cordell for the final leg in Tel Aviv.Cordell has been careful to keep his Roll For Peace apolitical, a decision that may have contributed to the lack of public awareness about presence here in Israel.
There was also the matter of timing. Cordell began his four-day roll on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. He had timed his journey to take place during the same week as the International Day of Peace (September 21), but he had not realized that it was also the same week as the beginning of the Jewish High Holidays.
While the lighter traffic on the roads made for safer rolling, it also led to fewer people out and about to notice, approach and interact with him.
Amir Bartura, an actor who lives in Kiryat Ono, heard about Cordell and made a point of joining him along the Tel Aviv promenade. Bartura, who lost his lower legs to a circulatory disease, arrived in his wheelchair in celebratory mode, wearing a clown hat and red nose.
As Bartura, also an actor, exchanged tips with Cordell about the best gloves to wear for long-distance wheelchair rolling (they both agreed that the ones designed for gardening are the best), Ofer Eisenberg and Nir Caspi happened to ride by on their tandem bike.
Caspi wears prostheses in place of his arms, which he lost when a land mine exploded in his hands as he was trying to disassemble it while serving in the IDF in Lebanon.
‘I’ve come to terms with my life. I have to sacrifice and take chances’
A bit beat by the exertion of his Israeli journey, he wondered out loud whether he would be able to keep up these impressive wheelchair rolls for much longer.Cordell, who suffered from neck pain during the Roll For Peace, thinks he might have to rest up instead.
A minute later, he dismissed his doubts. He believes that putting his acting career on the back burner and making these journeys is what he is meant to do.
“I’ve come to terms with my life. I have to sacrifice and take chances,” he said. “Inspiring people is what I should be doing now.”