Harleys and Torah Study? A Zionist, do-gooding motorcycle club? Yup, that's right. Giving back with the Zion Riders
The engines roar ferociously as the motorcycles circle the courtyard, lap after lap, continuously revving their choppers, drowning out the screaming school kids ecstatically snapping photo after photo. Finally parking, the bandana-touting, patch-filled vest-wearing motorcyclists demount from their custom bikes and cross their large, tattooed arms to face the awe of the teenage crowd. A young male runs towards them, energetically singing as he waves the Israeli flag in the air; the bikers, breaking their cool, smile, joining him for an opportune photo. A moment later, the school rabbi grabs the leather-clad, tattooed bikers' hands for a round of the hora and they all dance joyously. Not an everyday Israeli scene, that's for sure.
The bikers are members of Zion Riders, Israel’s largest and most prestigious motorcycle club. Founded in 2003, Joseph “Bonnie” Hayat was a seasoned motorcyclist who had returned from a stint living in the US and wanted to bring the same motorcycle culture back home. The club has blossomed over the years, touting a global Motorcycle Club affiliation with members as old as 86 streaming across a range of professions and political affiliations. But since its inception, and in contrast to the rigid rules of the stateside bike clubs, Bonnie knew things would have to work a little differently here. “We’re Jews,” he explains, “Jews don’t care about counting club members - there are enough of us, baruch hashem. We don’t do the whole ‘pride’ thing: wash my bike, run my errands, etc,” he explains. Still, even for an Israeli bike club, “there are some values we don’t compromise on,” he says.
While their core values are owning a motorcycle (“most likely a Harley, though sometimes a Japanese bike or - God forbid! - a German one”), loving Israel (they frequently ride in memory of fallen soldiers) and being a good, loving person, the underlying value which stands out, is their Jewishness. Their club logo is a Jewish Star with a black, winged skull dead center. Three of their flagship custom-built bikes are named Zion, Hertzel and Easy, doubling as Isaac. Their clubhouse, the “Sisi” bar, is filled to the brim with American-style biker paraphernalia, but between the cracks are draped Israeli flags, pics of the rebbe and a tefillin corner; they even give weekly torah lessons. This underlying value differentiates them from traditional preconceptions of motorcycle clubs. “People associate Harleys with bad stuff, but we’re actually quite friendly guys,” Bonnie emphasizes, “we stay away from violence and criminals. If you embarrass the club, you’re out; it’s the opposite of the Hell’s Angels.”
It’s not just opposing violence and criminality, but active good-doing which defines the Zion Riders. We met them out doing a local mitzvah: a ride to Beit Sefer Amit, a religious high school in Ramle which helps at-risk youth. They had arrived, simply put, to cheer up the kids. “It's important for us to give back to our community, whether through participating in parades, volunteering or even just showing up like this,” Bonnie said. The kids indeed were cheerful, continuing to snap photos and poke around the bikes throughout their stay. The riders had also taken the opportunity to support a member’s special needs son, surprising him on the way to the school and letting him ride on the back of a bike. Gleaming, he had made sure to don his own patch-filled leather vest, Jewish star and all.
Though the club keeps busy with these “mitzvah” rides, they make sure to carve out time for fun, casual rides across the country, sometimes in packs of close to a hundred riders where “no one passes you, no one fucks with you, everyone looks at you - it feels great!”. Yet amidst discussing their planned rides, when asked about future club goals they kept their answers vague. “We’re taking it day by day,” chimed in one member. “Thank God, we’re all healthy and happy,” replied another. Bonnie, however, had the last, and very clear, word: “We’re waiting for the mashiach!”