Thunder on the Mall - Bikers rally for Shalit
Washington Jewish Week
It was impossible to ignore the chest-thudding, eye-popping, ear-blasting spectacle of tens of thousands of motorcycles slowly making their way from the Pentagon parking lot to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in the District on Sunday afternoon.
Since its inception in 1988, the annual Rolling Thunder demonstration has become a Memorial Day weekend tradition, seeking to raise awareness of the plight of prisoners of war and those missing in action from America's wars. On Sunday, the thunderers gained a few more riders, although their focus was a missing soldier from elsewhere - Israel to be exact. The newcomers made their way from the Israeli Embassy to join the processional and raise awareness about Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit. Now 24, Shalit was kidnapped by Hamas at his army post in Israel nearly five years ago on June 25, 2006.
Despite international pressure and public pleas for his release (or at least his humanitarian treatment) by both President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Shalit remains a captive in the Gaza Strip. He has been denied visits by his family and the International Committee of the Red Cross and little is known of his location or physical condition.
Last year, to help broadcast Shalit's story, Oren Poleg, a 36-year-old Israeli expatriate and local business consultant, along with his fiancee, Arielle Farber, 30, decided to ride their motorcycle in the massive Rolling Thunder rally, flying a large "Free Gilad!" flag. This year, a rowdy contingent of 23 motorcycles, and more than 40 riders (including this reporter) participated in the first "Ride for Gilad Shalit" event. Organized by Poleg and Farber through Facebook and word-of-mouth, the ride was co-sponsored by the Embassy of Israel and the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC).
Farber, who also serves as the director of Israel and international affairs for the JCRC, said the response that she and Poleg received last year from the other Rolling Thunder riders was inquisitive and "incredibly receptive." When she asked Rolling Thunder executive director Artie Muller if the "Ride for Gilad Shalit" group could formally join this year's Rolling Thunder rally, Farber said he replied matter-of-factly, "A vet is a vet!"
Before motoring from the Israeli Embassy to the Pentagon early on Sunday morning, the riders - many of whom wore "Gilad is still alive" T-shirts and blue "Free Gilad" armbands - firmly attached both a large American flag and a "Free Gilad!" flag with Shalit's picture emblazoned on it, to the back of their motorcycles. Others affixed gilad.org bumper stickers and secured "Americans United for Gilad" saddlebag signs to their bikes.
Avi Koldaro of Rockville owns a local motorcycle dealership and has ridden his bike in the Rolling Thunder rally for many years, he said.
"Normally, I wear a Harley-Davidson shirt," said Koldaro, 54. "But this year, I'm wearing one for Gilad Shalit."
Noam Katz, minister of public affairs for the Israeli Embassy, greeted the group and wished them a safe ride. He thanked "each one of you" for taking part in the event and acknowledged that "we all want to see [Shalit] home and getting all of his [human] rights." "[Memorial Day] is an important day for America, and we fight similar fights for freedom and against terrorism," said Katz. "It is part of the partnership between the U.S. and Israel."
After slowly riding from the embassy to the Rolling Thunder XXIV staging area inside the Pentagon's expansive parking lot, the "Ride for Gilad Shalit" group waited patiently for nearly 4 1/2 hours while trying to stay hydrated and mingling with the colorful crowd of fellow riders. Before embarking on the route to the National Mall, they fielded many questions about "the boy on the flag." Fred Gardner, a former U.S. Marine and a veteran of the Vietnam War, said he had never heard of Gilad Shalit. After listening to the story of the young Israeli soldier, Gardner, 66, of West Bloomfield, Mich., said it reminded him of "the way our soldiers were treated at the 'Hanoi Hilton.' "
"It takes me back to Vietnam," said Gardner, who rode his motorcycle solo for two days before joining the Rolling Thunder rally. "I hope you get him back," he said. The "Free Gilad!" flags on the motorcycles were also noticed by Israeli-born, 17-year-old Or Szyflingier and her father, Arieh, 57. Visiting Washington for the Memorial Day holiday from their home in Forest Hills, N.Y., they came to watch the motorcycles, said the teenager, "but we didn't expect to see the [Gilad Shalit] flags here."
"From far away, they caught our eye and heart," she said. "It's very emotional to see them and a great idea." Cooling off in the shade of East Potomac Park shortly after the ride, Anna Koutchmar, a kitchen and bath designer from Herndon, said she hoped that the thousands of spectators lining Constitution Avenue noticed the "Free Gilad!" flags as well and that their message "passes up the ranks." Of the Rolling Thunder rally, said Koutchmar, 35, "there wasn't a more appropriate place to ride for Gilad!" Despite the enthusiasm and success of the "Ride for Gilad Shalit" event, Poleg said he hopes "this will be the only time we need to do this" and that "next year Gilad will be riding with us."
If that happens, the "Gilad is still alive" T-shirts will be self-evident - but what of the flags with the words
"Free Gilad!" printed on them?
"We'll add a [letter] 'd' to the [word] 'Free,' " said Poleg.