Local Rabbi Bikes 163 Miles for His Son

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The steady rainfall had turned into a steady downpour, and Rabbi Larry Sernovitz was soaked, from his helmet to his cycling shoes. He had been biking for two days on a 163-mile circuit spanning New Jersey, Pennsylvania and finally, mercifully, New York, stopping only to eat and sleep.

He forewent the assistance of volunteers, even as he rode up and down thousands of feet of treacherous hills. His aim was to mimic the horror of living with a life-threatening illness, to somehow understand how his son, Sam, feels every day.

The precipitation persisted as the finish line at Camp Simcha Special in Glen Spey, N.Y., where Sam is a camper, neared. Sernovitz, surrounded by 500-plus athletes cycling as part of the Bike4Chai event, chugged along.


Rabbi Larry Sernovitz unites with his son, Sam, after completing Bike4Chai. | Photos provided

Then the skies cleared. Sernovitz crossed the finish line and the sun peeked out, warming the camp. Sernovitz hopped off his bike and looked for his son. Sam wasn’t hard to find. He was sporting an ear-to-ear grin and holding a blue sign that read, “Welcome to Camp Simcha Daddy.” Sernovitz scooped Sam off the ground and wrapped him in a long embrace.

“Daddy, I’m so happy to see you,” Sam told his father.

Sam, 9, has familial dysautonomia, a rare genetic disorder often found among Ashkenazi Jews. It results in a malfunction of his sensory and autonomic nervous systems, manifesting with sudden fluctuations in blood pressure and body temperature. He has a sensitivity to pain and he’s unable to cry.  His appetite wavers, so he receives consistent calories from a gastrostomy tube planted in his abdomen.

Bike4Chai raised, according to a spokesperson, nearly $10 million for Chai Lifeline, the nonprofit organization that provides emotional, social and financial support to children with life-threatening or lifelong illnesses and their family. Some bikers didn’t have a personal connection to the organization, and biked merely for the good of the cause.

But Sernovitz’s intent was clear.

“I didn’t realize how much it would affect me,” he said. “I knew I was doing it for him, but I had tears in my eyes as I picked him up.”

The 2018 iteration of the ride included some noteworthy participants, including 2011 Tour de France champion Cadel Evans and former New York Giants wide receiver Amani Toomer. Sernovitz, who had never taken part in a competitive ride, impressed himself with his stamina. He was buoyed by the vision of greeting Sam, who he hadn’t seen since dropping him off at camp July 26.

A few months ago, Sam told his father he wished he wasn’t different from his classmates in the Cherry Hill Public School District. He doesn’t have those worries at camp. Among children with similar disabilities, he walks around without fear of judgment. One afternoon Sernovitz opened a text message from Sam’s counselor to see video of his son zip lining into a forest. “Wheeeeee!” Sam says in the video.

Photo provided

“They told us two years ago about this amazing camp that takes kids with chronic illness for two weeks — this summer it’s 12 days — and gives them the world. And then they told us it’s free. And for Jewish camps to be free,” Sernovitz said, chuckling, “that’s an oxymoron.”

The camp is broken into two sessions: one for children with cancer, the other for children with chronic illnesses. The annual bike ride is its signature event.

“This event is a logistical challenge and an incredible undertaking,” said Rabbi Sruli Fried, Chai Lifeline NJ/PA regional director and executive director of Bike4Chai. “I have five full-time staff working on it for the full year and over 350 volunteers run this event.”

Fried said he’s developed a close bond with Sernovitz, the founder of the Nafshenu congregation in Cherry Hill, N.J., thanks in part to Sernovitz’s work with Chai House, a Chai Lifeline facility that resembles a Ronald McDonald House. It’s situated near the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and provides food and shelter to parents forced to leave their children at CHOP.

On multiple occasions, Sernovitz and his congregants have put together care packages with toiletries for Chai House.

Fried found himself rooting for Semovitz on Aug. 1, as the bikers pedaled through the rain.

“It was like God crying with tears of joy for families and bikers,” Fried said.

Perhaps. The rain stopped, but for Sernovitz the tears were just starting to flow. 

jneedelman@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0737

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