It was 6 a.m. on a weekday in January 2007. Rabbi Gedaliah Lowenstein was frantically waving his arms in the middle of Martin Luther King Drive. He was wearing two ski masks and a drawer full of layers. He didn’t have a cell phone and just needed one driver to stop.
No one did. No car pulled over to see what was wrong. But one driver did call 9-1-1 to say that there was a “weird looking guy” going crazy in traffic.
There was good reason for Lowenstein’s mania. A few minutes earlier, peddling next to a parking lot near the river, he noticed what looked to be a young man sprawled out on the concrete. As he got closer, he realized the man was dead.
A chilling scene? Certainly. The worst thing to happen to Lowenstein on a bike? Nope. And yet, Lowenstein remains resolute in his support of biking.
He and a handful of other Philadelphia-area rabbis have made a habit of cycling — and not just because the two-wheelers get them from point A to point B faster than on foot and more sustainably than in a car.
As a hobby or as means of commuting, it serves as a release from stress. It can be alternately exhilarating, relaxing, illuminating and challenging. With fingers curled around brakes and shifters, one foot planted on each pedal and two eyes focused on the road, the posture gives them a different angle on the universe.
“You really experience an area in quite a different way on a bike than you would in a car,” Lowenstein said. “You notice things that you wouldn’t otherwise.”
Like a dead body, in the case of that particular winter morning in 2007.
Philadelphia police officers arrived on the scene a few minutes after receiving the passing driver’s call. They found drug paraphernalia in the man’s pocket and later determined that he had overdosed and been dumped by his friends.
This was not the first time Lowenstein glimpsed grisly parts of the urban world, often at a time, as he puts it, when “the night criminals go to sleep.”
One time he found an AK-47 rifle. On another ride, he encountered a woman who said she had just been raped.
In July, a bus driver merged into the bike lane in front of the Philadelphia Art Museum and collided with Lowenstein. Everything but the titanium bike was badly banged up.
None of these incidents made the rabbi think twice about hopping back on the saddle. None of them made him contemplate taking a different route, where the odds of confronting something unpleasant might not be as high. Lowenstein is back to cycling indoors and awaits only his doctor’s permission to start riding outside again.
“At least part of what draws me to biking is the realness of it,” said Lowenstein, a Chabad rabbi and co-director of the Jewish Center of Northern Liberties. “There are bad things happening in society, and it’s not good to just ignore them. You should know that they are there and try and deal with them.”
Around Philadelphia — and the country — people are increasingly trading seat belts for bike helmets, swapping air conditioning for fresh breezes. The city boasts twice as many bicycle commuters, per capita, as any other metropolis in the United States, according to a 2011 report from the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. The non-profit organization has ambitious goals, which include increasing the number of city commuters who primarily bike from 1.6 percent to 6.5 percent of the population by 2020.
Lowenstein, a father of four, returned to his childhood hobby of cycling about seven years ago to improve his fitness. With his bushy orange beard and tzitzit hanging down, the rabbi is easy to pick out from a distance, and other bikers often do. Lowenstein said he promotes the exercise to anyone he comes in contact with.
“If people don’t do it, they are really missing out on a very powerful experience that should be part of their lives,” he said.
Invigorating Morning Rides
Rabbi Judd Kruger Levingston rides about 10 miles each way from his West Mount Airy home through Manayunk and along back roads in Penn Valley and Gladwyne to get to Barrack Hebrew Academy, where he is director of Jewish studies. He doesn’t usually drive unless the temperature dips below 20 degrees.
“I feel particularly invigorated during my morning rides when the rising sun begins to sharpen the colors of the leaves and trees and when I have to wiggle my toes to keep warm,” the 48-year-old said.
The rabbi said he takes seriously the Jewish value of shmirat haguf, caring for your body, considered to be the vessel for the soul. Ordinary acts like washing your hands, taking a casual stroll or hopping on a bike can become holy.
Levingston said he thinks of the concept “as being the custodian for your own body. In some ways, exercise helps uphold that value.” A competitive cross-country runner at the high school and collegiate levels, Levingston switched from running to biking when his knees told him to. As he rides, he said, he often thinks about his favorite biblical verse, one from the Book of Isaiah, Chapter 40: “They shall run and not grow weary.”
“There are times when I’ll recite some of the morning blessings, praising God who gives light to the blind and who gives strength to the weary,” he said.
A few times a month, Levingston joins Shai Gluskin, 54, a rabbi who splits his time between leading the youth congregation at Germantown Jewish Centre and designing interactive websites for small businesses and non-profit organizations.
The two usually spend the first stretch of the ride “schmoozing,” Gluskin said. Then, without either one acknowledging it, they go silent and attack the hills.
“You are finding out who you are because you are pushing yourself beyond where you’ve been in the past,” said Gluskin, who also lives in West Mount Airy. “You are not trying to figure things out. You are just trying to stay fully present in the moment.”
Gluskin has spent most of his spare time over the last few months either in prayer services or on a 1987 road bike.
He is observing Jewish tradition by saying kaddish for his father, who died earlier this year. He clears his head both by davening in shul and churning his legs on a bike. Gluskin said the two rituals, biking and praying, offer relief from “the attention-deficit culture.”
“When I go down Germantown Avenue to Chestnut Hill College, I’m going 38 miles an hour and at that point, that’s dangerous,” he said. “I’m not specifically trying to take a risk but there is something about the danger that does focus my attention, and there is something about that focus of attention that is spiritual.”