The Wheels of Love charity bike ride launched its bar mitzva celebration this week as hundreds of cyclists from around the world embarked on a five-day ride from the south of Israel toward the ALYN Children’s Hospital in Jerusalem. One dedicated rider helps the hospital’s patients year-round — as their physiotherapist.

The ALYN Hospital is Israel’s only pediatric and adolescent rehabilitation facility, and it serves hundreds of children from all over the country and overseas who have birth defects or injuries from accidents or terror attacks. But the treatments, especially innovative ones, cost money.

In 2000, nine cycling enthusiasts rode the first Wheels of Love ride to raise money for the hospital and the children it served. Originally they had planned on riding along with British cyclists on the Norwood Ravenswood Israel Charity Bike Ride. But the violence of the newly erupted Second Intifada caused the cancellation of that ride, and the group rode on its own for ALYN.

Thirteen years later, the bike ride has become an annual event, attracting hundreds of riders from various countries, and the ride’s website is available in Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and French in addition to English and Hebrew. On Sunday they embarked on their journey from the southern city of Arad and they intend to finish on Thursday at the hospital in Jerusalem, where they’ll be greeted by the staff, patients and families.

One of the riders is Koss Webber, a Dutch physiotherapist who first arrived at ALYN in 1989 as a volunteer. He came because he wanted to work with children, but there was no place in Holland for him to do so in his field.

After returning to Holland, Webber stayed in touch with the hospital and staff and occasionally came for short visits. In 1994 ALYN asked if he’d come for a temporary job. That stint hasn’t ended yet; Webber made Israel his home, and, in addition to his two daughters, calls ALYN his family.

Participants of the 2012 Wheels of Love ride pose for a group picture (photo credit: courtesy ALYN)

Participants of the 2012 Wheels of Love ride pose for a group picture (photo credit: courtesy ALYN)

For the past 10 years he’s joined the cyclists on the winding five-day, 500-kilometer trip to raise money for the hospital. The ride is “the spiritual peak of the year,” Webber said, thanks to its scenic route and the fact that in recent years, participant fundraisers have succeeded in hitting the $2 million mark each time.

Wheels of Love is “something very special for the organization and for me personally,” Webber said, enthusing about the opportunity to “suffer through a journey that is tiring and physically challenging” for such a positive cause. What’s more, he added, “everyone does it in a fun manner.”

Webber’s connection to the Jewish state is deeper than work and cycling. During the Holocaust his grandfather hid Jews, and was killed by the Nazis for doing so.

In the spring of 1944 Webber’s grandfather was approached by his neighbor and asked to hide a Jewish family. He agreed, and for three months fed and hid them in his home — until people from the village told the Germans. One night Nazi soldiers arrested the Jewish family along with Weber’s grandfather and deported them to a concentration camp. In February 1945 the Dutchman was transferred to the Bergen-Belsen camp, where he died.

After moving to Israel the physiotherapist started working for official recognition of his grandfather’s actions, and in 1997 the man was recognized as one of the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and study center.

Koss Webber during the 2011 Wheels of Love bike ride (photo credit: courtesy ALYN)

Koss Webber during the 2011 Wheels of Love bike ride (photo credit: courtesy ALYN)

Working for ALYN, Webber can excel professionally, he said., and there is nothing “more filling and gratifying” than helping injured children regain their place in society. “It’s very long and grueling work, and in most cases our successes give us hope.”

Not everyone is built to do it, the dedicated physiotherapist said. But it’s the right job for him. “I come and leave work every day with a smile,” he said.