A challenging and athletic experience: a rider taking part in the Arava Institute Hazon Bike Ride.It’s physically challenging, but for the 150 Israelis and Americans taking part in the Arava Institute Hazon Bike Ride from Jerusalem to Eilat, it’s also about some of the toughest mental challenges facing us today – peace, coexistence, and the environment.

Set up and run by the Arava Institute of Environmental Studies, an organization that teaches coexistence through environmental cooperation in the Middle East, and Hazon, which works towards creating a healthier and more sustainable Jewish community, the annual 450-kilometer bike ride is a yearly fundraising effort designed to promote environmental protection and regional cooperation in the Middle East.

As part of the seven-day road trip, which set off yesterday, the riders will leave from Jerusalem, cycle through the hills of the Jerusalem forest, descend to the Mediterranean Sea, then climb up to the Negev desert. On the final day, participants will follow the Egyptian border and descend into Eilat.

During the trip the cyclists will visit the rocket-stricken town of Sderot in a show of solidarity to residents there, have a Shabbat layover at Mizpe Ramon, and swim in the Red Sea.

The bikers are aged from 17 to 70 and include Israeli Arabs and Jews, and 120 American Jews and Christians from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and New York. A few riders will also be joining the event from Australia and Italy. The riders range from strong advocates for Israel to those whose trip to Israel will be their first.

“There are few bike rides that promote peace and coexistence or the environment, and a ride that combines all of those is unique,” says Elad Topel, who is organizing the ride on behalf of the Arava Institute. “The trip brings riders from all ends of the political spectrum together with the single goal of promoting a sustainable environment in the Middle East.”

On the ride itself, there will be an attempt to offset the carbon footprint of those who flew to Israel from the US. Riders will use personal drinking bottles throughout the ride – instead of environmentally unfriendly plastic bottles, and leftover food will be composed. Participants will also learn firsthand about pressing environmental issues, as environmental educators from the Arava Institute will be present at stopovers to add their insights.

The Arava Institute has been sponsoring the cycle ride for some years and many of the staff and students serve as crew for the trip. The institute’s campus at Kibbutz Ketura plays host to Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians who live together and learn about environmental issues.

In the past, the institute has worked to manage joint water resources in the Jordan River, held workshops to cultivate young environmental leadership for Jewish and Arab youth, and publicized joint research by Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians on air pollution in the Middle East.

In addition to the Israel ride, Hazon also sponsors the New York Jewish Environmental Bike Ride. Another similar Israel ride is scheduled for November this year.

“This is the next generation of environmental services,” Topel tells ISRAEL21c. “The ride is, first of all, a challenging and athletic experience. But beyond that, the riders will become familiar with an entire new world of environmental issues and will also begin to understand the complex regional challenges that Israel faces today in crafting an environmental policy.”