Mountain biking in Israel is something that I do with great passion and commitment. And when I'm on my bike, I feel that I connect with the profound beauty of Israel, and I feel that I'm united with this country's history and biblical law. And also, for me, biking is a matter of empowerment. When I reach the summit of a steep mountain in the middle of nowhere, I feel young, invincible, eternal. It's as if I'm connecting with some legacy or with some energy far greater than myself. You can see my fellow riders at the end of the picture, looking at me with some concern. And here is another picture of them. Unfortunately, I cannot show their faces, neither can I disclose their true names, and that's because my fellow riders are juvenile inmates, offenders spending time in a correction facility about 20 minutes' ride from here — well, like everything in Israel. And I've been riding with these kids once a week, every Tuesday, rain or shine, for the last four years and by now, they've become a very big part of my life.
This story began four years ago. The correction facility where they are locked up happens to be right in the middle of one of my usual trips, and it's surrounded by barbed wires and electric gates and armed guards. So on one of these rides, I talked my way into the compound and went to see the warden. I told the warden that I wanted to start a mountain biking club in this place and that basically I wanted to take the kids from here to there. And I told him, "Let's find a way in which I'll be able to take out 10 kids once a week to ride with in the summer in the country." And the warden was quite amused, and he told me he thought that I was a nut and he told me, "This place is a correction facility. These guys are serious offenders. They are supposed to be locked up. They aren't supposed to be out at large." And yet, we began to talk about it, and one thing led to another. And I can't see myself going into a state prison in New Jersey and making such a proposition, but this being Israel, the warden somehow made it happen. And so two months later, we found ourselves "at large" — myself, 10 juvenile inmates and a wonderful fellow named Russ, who became a very good friend of mine and my partner in this project.
And in the next few weeks, I had the tremendous pleasure of introducing these kids to the world of total freedom, a world consisting of magnificent vistas like these — everything you see here is obviously in Israel — as well as close encounters with all sorts of small creatures coming in all sorts of sizes, colors, shapes, forms and so on. In spite of all this splendor, the beginning was extremely frustrating. Every small obstacle, every slight uphill, would cause these fellows to stop in their tracks and give up. So we had a lot of this going on. I found out that they had a very hard time dealing with frustration and difficulties — not because they were physically unfit. But that's one reason why they ended up where they were. And I became increasingly more and more agitated, because I was there not only to be with them, but also to ride and create a team and I didn't know what to do.
Now, let me give you an example. We're going downhill in some rocky terrain, and the front tire of Alex gets caught in one of these crevasses here. So he crashes down, and he gets slightly injured, but this does not prevent him from jumping up and then starting to jump up and down on his bike and curse violently. Then he throws his helmet in the air. His backpack goes ballistic in some other direction. And then he runs to the nearest tree and starts to break branches and throw rocks and curse like I've never heard. And I'm just standing there, watching this scene with a complete disbelief, not knowing what to do. I'm used to algorithms and data structures and super motivated students, and nothing in my background prepared me to deal with a raging, violent adolescent in the middle of nowhere. And you have to realize that these incidents did not happen in convenient locations. They happened in places like this, in the Judean Desert, 20 kilometers away from the nearest road. And what you don't see in this picture is that somewhere between these riders there, there's a teenager sitting on a rock, saying, "I'm not moving from here. Forget it. I've had it." Well, that's a problem because one way or another, you have to get this guy moving because it's getting dark soon and dangerous.
It took me several such incidents to figure out what I was supposed to do. At the beginning, it was a disaster. I tried harsh words and threats and they took me nowhere. That's what they had all their lives. And at some point I found out, when a kid like this gets into a fit, the best thing that you can possibly do is stay as close as possible to this kid, which is difficult, because what you really want to do is go away. But that's what he had all his life, people walking away from him. So what you have to do is stay close and try to reach in and pet his shoulder or give him a piece of chocolate. So I would say, "Alex, I know that it's terribly difficult. Why don't you rest for a few minutes and then we'll go on." "Go away you maniac-psychopath. Why would you bring us to this goddamn place?" And I would say, "Relax, Alex. Here's a piece of chocolate." And Alex would go, "Arrrrggg!" Because you have to understand that on these rides we are constantly hungry — and after the rides also.
And who is this guy, Alex, to begin with? He's a 17-year-old. When he was eight, someone put him on a boat in Odessa and sent him, shipped him to Israel on his own. And he ended up in south Tel Aviv and did not have the good luck to be picked up by a [unclear] and roamed the streets and became a prominent gang member. And he spent the last 10 years of his life in two places only, the slums and the state prison, where he spent the last two years before he ended up sitting on this rock there. And so this kid was probably abused, abandoned, ignored, betrayed by almost every adult along the way. So, for such a kid, when an adult that he learns to respect stays close to him and doesn't walk away from him in any situation, irrespective of how he behaves, it's a tremendous healing experience. It's an act of unconditional acceptance, something that he never had.
I want to say a few words about vision. When I started this program four years ago, I had this original plan of creating a team of winning underdogs. I had an image of Lance Armstrong in my mind. And it took me exactly two months of complete frustration to realize that this vision was misplaced, and that there was another vision supremely more important and more readily available. It all of a sudden dawned on me, in this project, that the purpose of these rides should actually be to expose the kids to one thing only: love. Love to the country, to the uphill and the downhill, to all the incredible creatures that surround us — the animals, the plants, the insects — love and respect to other fellow members in your team, in your biking team, and most importantly, love and respect to yourself, which is something that they badly miss.
Together with the kids, I also went through a remarkable transformation. Now, I come from a cutthroat world of science and high technology. I used to think that reason and logic and relentless drive were the only ways to make things happen. And before I worked with the kids, anything that I did with them, or anything that I did with myself, was supposed to be perfect, ideal, optimal, but after working with them for some time, I discovered the great virtues of empathy and flexibility and being able to start with some vision, and if the vision doesn't work, well nothing happened. All you have to do is play with it, change it a little bit, and come up with something that does help, that does work. So right now, I feel more like these are my principles, and if you don't like them, I have others.
And one of these principles is focus. Before each ride we sit together with the kids, and we give them one word to think about during the ride. You have to focus their attention on something because so many things happen. So these are words like "teamwork" or "endurance" or even complicated concepts like "resource allocation" or "perspective," a word that they don't understand. You know, perspective is one of these critically important life-coping strategies that mountain biking can really teach you. I tell kids when they struggle through some uphill and feel like they cannot take it anymore, it really helps to ignore the immediate obstacles and raise your head and look around and see how the vista around you grows. It literally propels you upwards. That's what perspective is all about. Or you can also look back in time and realize that you've already conquered steeper mountains before. And that's how they develop self-esteem.
Now, let me give you an example of how it works. You stand with your bike at the beginning of February. It's very cold, and you're standing in one of these rainy days, and it's drizzling and cold and chilly, and you're standing in, let's say, Yokneam. And you look up at the sky through a hole in the clouds you see the monastery at the top of the Muhraka — that's where you're supposed to climb now — and you say, "There's no way that I could possibly get there." And yet, two hours later you find yourself standing on the roof of this monastery, smeared with mud, blood and sweat. And you look down at Yokneam; everything is so small and tiny. And you say, "Hey, Alex. Look at this parking lot where we started. It's that big. I can't believe that I did it." And that's the point when you start loving yourself.
And so we talked about these special words that we teach them. And at the end of each ride, we sit together and share moments in which those special words of the day popped up and made a difference, and these discussions can be extremely inspiring. In one of them, one of the kids once said, "When we were riding on this ridge overlooking the Dead Sea — and he's talking about this spot here — "I was reminded of the day when I left my village in Ethiopia and went away together with my brother. We walked 120 kilometers until we reached Sudan. This was the first place where we got some water and supplies." And he goes on saying, and everyone looks at him like a hero, probably for the first time in his life. And he says — because I also have volunteers riding with me, adults, who are sitting there listening to him — and he says, "And this was just the beginning of our ordeal until we ended up in Israel. And only now," he says, "I'm beginning to understand where I am, and I actually like it." Now I remember, when he said it, I felt goosebumps on my body, because he said it overlooking the Moab Mountains here in the background. That's where Joshua descended and crossed the Jordan and led the people of Israel into the land of Canaan 3,000 years ago in this final leg of the journey from Africa.
And so, perspective and context and history play key roles in the way I plan my rides with the kids. We visit Kibbutzim that were established by Holocaust survivors. We explore ruins of Palestinian villages, and we discuss how they became ruins. And we go through numerous remnants of Jewish settlements, Nabatic settlements, Canaanite settlements — three-, four, five-thousand years old. And through this tapestry, which is the history of this country, the kids acquire what is probably the most important value in education, and that is the understanding that life is complex, and there's no black and white. And by appreciating complexity, they become more tolerant, and tolerance leads to hope.
I ride with these kids once a week, every Tuesday. Here's a picture I took last Tuesday — less than a week ago — and I ride with them tomorrow also. In every one of these rides I always end up standing in one of these incredible locations, taking in this incredible landscape around me, and I feel blessed and fortunate that I'm alive, and that I sense every fiber in my aching body. And I feel blessed and fortunate that 15 years ago I had the courage to resign my tenured position at NYU and return to my home country where I can do these incredible rides with this group of troubled kids coming from Ethiopia and Morocco and Russia. And I feel blessed and fortunate that every week, every Tuesday — and actually every Friday also — I can once again celebrate in the marrow of my bones the very essence of living in Israel on the edge.
Computer science professor Shimon Schocken is also an avid mountain biker. To share the life lessons he learned while riding, he began an outdoor program with Israel's juvenile inmates and was touched by both their intense difficulties and profound successes. Photographs by Raphael Rabinovitz.
Shimon Schocken is a computer science professor and dedicated educator.
Shimon Schocken is a computer science professor and dedicated educator.