Holy rollers mindful of differences

Published 12:07 am Friday, July 29, 2011

It is safe to say that when the three orthodox Jewish bikers pedaled through town Tuesday they knew they would turn a few heads.

When I spied the men through the City Hall window, I must admit I said to the mayor, “They are obviously not from here.”

Being a tourist town, Natchez sees all sorts of people from varied corners of the world, but these three bicyclists turned a few heads as they toured through town wearing cycling clothes and pedal shoes with their long bushy beards and yamulkes.

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Dani Saul, Zamy Perlman and Shmuel Rothstein have seen the stares as they are one week into a trip from New York City to Los Angeles. They know they look different, talk differently and act differently than most, if not all, of the people they have met on their trip.

And that is the point, Saul said Tuesday evening after meeting with Natchez Mayor Jake Middleton.

The three holy rollers, as they like to call themselves, are making the trip across America to raise awareness for another group of people who are regularly singled out as being unusual, awkward and different — special needs children.

As a society we like to keep ourselves separate from those we view as different, Saul said in Middleton’s office.

By biking about a 100 miles a day, the trio of young rabbis is raising awareness and a little money for a nationwide organization called Friendship Circle which pairs up special needs children with teenagers.

Together, the pairs participate in weekly programs such as sports night, dance class, bowling and more. These friendships offer a sense of confidence and community inclusion in the life of the child. The teens build lasting friendships with the children and offer help to the children’s families by allowing parents and caregivers time to be away from the stresses involved with rearing special needs children.

The organization has blossomed since its inception in 1995. Starting with just eight volunteers, the Friendship Circle has cultivated friendships between 5,000 children and 11,000 teens in 16 years.

“The teens are surprisingly receptive to these children,” Saul said.

One reason, Saul said, may be that many teens are at an awkward time in their lives when they, too, feel different. By helping these children, teens see that in some way we are all different and that it is our differences that make us unique.

“It is no longer about that separation between me and them,” Saul said. “It is no longer about our differences — because we are all different.”

The trio asks the people they meet to help by offering a donation of $4 for every mile on their cross-country trek. Donations can be made at www.bike4friendship.com. One hundred percent of the donations goes directly to Friendship Circle. Information about the organization, the trip and the bikers also can be found on their website.

Ten months ago, Saul and his friends had no idea that they would be cycling across the country. Seeking a bridge from rabbinical school to the “real world” the three decided to set out on their journey.

“I wanted to see that the world is a better place — a good place,” Saul said.

Ben Hillyer is the design editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3540 or by e-mail at ben.hillyer@natchezdemocrat.com.