When Zak Greenwald, aged 32, was a student at the University of Santa Cruz, he had an expensive bicycle. “It cost around one thousand dollars, and I had it for less than a year. I forgot it at a bus station overnight, and when I came back the next morning only the metal frame was left, everything else was gone. I looked at it and sighed. I got onto the bus and sat there with the silver frame in my hands. It was a ‘ride of shame.’ I told myself that I didn’t want it to bum me out, I wanted it to empower me."
And it worked. “Instead of buying another expensive bike,” he recalls, “I told myself I that maybe I would try and build one. So I went to a community-run bicycle cooperative that uses the same model we’re trying to build here in Akko. It’s a place you can go and there will be people there who can help you help yourself.”
“There were men and women there, Black people and white people. I went there once or twice a week for about a month. I made mistakes, I cut my finger, it healed, and I build a bicycle. In the end I felt so much more connected to the bike I built than I had felt to the expensive bike I bought.”
“After I finished my bike, I kept volunteering there. I felt that it was such a good way for people to meet and do something together. It was really nice. Now I’m feeling that all over again, after putting it aside for a number of years.”
“We’ve already handed out around forty bicycles”
Greenwald made aliyah from Los Angeles eight years ago with “Habonim Dror”, a Zionist youth movement with branches around the world. For the past three years, he’s been a member of the urban educators’ kibbutz in Akko, part of the “Dror Israel” movement, where he runs a bicycle club for middle and high schoolers who are part of the “Ha'ogen” (“anchor”) clubhouse in Akko.
What do you do in the bicycle club?
“In the club we have a space that we use a bicycle shed. Once a week we spread out tables with tools on the sidewalk and we work on bikes that have been donated to us and that need repairs. The youth who work on them can keep the bikes for themselves or give them to friends, neighbors, or family members.”
“Children and adults who need bike repairs also come to us. They have a flat tier, the seat is broken, or the chain is making noises. The club is a part of the [Ha'ogen]clubhouse, but because it’s on the street, it’s not just the kids who benefit from it.
What do the young people get from it, besides the bikes?
They work on the bikes and sometimes get frustrated, but they don’t give up. They learn that not everything happens immediately, that you need to be patient, that sometimes you need to start over. These are new skills for them. Working on the bikes teaches them that you have to learn to slow down. Learn from failure. In the end they really enjoy the finished product and they’re proud of it.”
“Aside from that, the goal of building bikes is to give them a chance not just to ‘get’ something, but also to create something. They have a job. These apprentices are children that no one sees as people with something to offer. Working on bicycles helps to break down that narrative of children that can’t give anything, and allows them to give to their community and their friends.”
“It’s important to me to make sure that it’s a good environment – not competitive. For example, a kid might come who’s made aliyah from Ukraine, everything in that kid’s life has change in a very dramatic way, and then you give them a bike, and suddenly they can access everything in their city— going downtown, getting to the train, go shopping, go wherever they want. That’s freedom.”
Does it work?
“I see the bikes all over the city. When I’m out in Akko on Friday afternoon, I can see at least three of four kids riding bikes that came from the workshop. Over the past year we’ve handed out around forty bikes, not including the bikes that we repaired. This is just the beginning, but I see that what we’re doing has an influence—there are more bikes on the street, and the kids and I do all the work with our own hands.
Who are the kids in the club?
There’s a variety of people that come to take part and help out. There are Arabs, Russian-speaking Jews, new olim [immigrants] – it’s fun. The language barriers don’t matter, because we’re working with our hands and enjoying being outside. The bikes are a sort of method. It’s not really about the bikes— it’s an attempt to build a community with the help of the bikes. Everyone is invited to participate and everyone can benefit from it: Arabs, Jews, poor people and rich people.”
You yourself are an oleh [immigrant], does it answer a need for you too?
“When I made aliyah, I put the world of bicycling aside. I worked with words for three or four years, and when the Hebrew words I had weren’t enough, I started working with my hands. I always say that before I immigrated, I worked from the shoulders up – very intellectual, academic, educational, but I couldn’t replace a light bulb. Since I made aliyah I’ve had to work from the shoulders down – to learn to use body language, to work with my hands, to read facial expressions.”
“We’re making the best of what we have”
The answer to the question of where so many bikes come to the workshop from is a philosophical one. “Whoever doesn’t search, won’t find,” Greenwald says. “That’s my philosophy of life. So I search. I love to find things in the trash. The way I see it, every time I go outside is an adventure. You don’t know what you’ll find. A lot of people throw away bikes. At least once or twice a week I find bikes or parts of bikes in the trash.”
“So, I take things that would have gone to the landfill, and instead those things give someone freedom, fitness, work opportunities, freedom of movement. Part of the idea is to teach people that there’s no shame in taking something that’s old. It’s against our culture, where ‘cool’ things are sparkly, expensive, and new. It’s educating people to love what they have.”
As soon as word got out that there’s a place where young people build and fix old bikes, “tons of bikes starting showing up here. Everyone who hears about our project tells us, ‘I think I have a bike in the shed, let me check,’ and they find one. People are happy that their trash can become something meaningful. So far, we’ve spent very little money on supplies. The bicycles come from people that want to participate or for whom that’s their way of supporting us. Sometimes people want a repair and for whatever reason we can’t do the repair immediately, so we lend them a bike until theirs’ is ready.”
Where do the replacement parts and the tools come from?
“There are a few things that I bought, but the majority was given to me or I found. In a professional bike shop, they have professional tools. We’re not a bike shop, so the supplies we have are whatever the community has given us. We do the best we can with what we have. If we had more tools, we could do more repairs, but the majority of the time we have what we need. What we make isn’t’ ‘sparkly,’ but we feel proud of what we’ve created.”
And the kids are willing to ride bikes that come from the trash?
“Sometimes they think that it’s gross, but I had two kids I worked with who thought it was cool, and they took that on as their mission – going around Akko and finding bikes in the trash. Sometimes I get a text message from them with pictures of bikes. They ask me if it’s OK to take it, we talk about it. I try to understand if we can use it, according to the situation in the workshop.”
“We have a lot of rules. If it’s next to the dumpster, that’s fine. But what if it’s leaning against a wall? It depends on the situation; if it’s been there for a few days or a few months. And what if it’s someone’s yard? There’s a lot of gray area.”
“Learning the difference between ‘bad’ and ‘difficult’”
Greenwald’s relationship to bicycles wasn’t a story of love at first sight. “When I was a kid, I had a hard time with bikes. I only learned to ride when I was fourteen or fifteen,” he recounts. “For years I would try and try. I kept falling and would get so frustrated. There’s a story that my dad loves to tell. One morning I woke up and said: ‘Today I’m learning to ride a bike. I had this block that I wanted to overcome. I got on the bike, I fell, I got hurt. It was like a battle I had with myself. It took me hours. I was bleeding and injured, but by the end of that day, me and my dad were riding together.”
And now your apprentices are learning that good things take effort.
“Yeah. Life is hard, there are problems, there’s fear. But we don’t need to be afraid of our feelings. Learning the difference between ‘bad’ and ‘difficult.’ A lot of my experiences here in Israel have been frustrating. I feel like I don’t understand completely everything that’s going on around me. My life is hard here. Not bad, but hard, and that’s something that I share with the kids I work with.”
“There’s something therapeutic about working on bikes. You get into this groove. Sometimes I stop and think, here I am, thirty-two years old, from Los Angeles, and I’m on a sidewalk in Akko with Arabs, Jews, Russian-speakers. I have no idea what they’re saying around me, but I know that a good thing is happening and that everyone will be better people as a result. It’s really cool.”
How do you imagine the project developing in the future?
“We want more people in Akko to get around using bikes, and for more people to be involved in creating them. We hope to move out of the clubhouse’s space and to have our own space, a place where everyone can work with tools. Everyone, no matter who, feels better on a bike, looks better on a bike. It makes the city better. It’s a win-win-win.”
What’s your favorite bike path in the city?
“I have two answers. There’s the tayelet [boardwalk], when the sun sets. It’s the freshest air in the city. You pass by families, Arabs and Jews, young people going out on their first date, people jogging—you really feel like you’re in Akko. But the truth is that what I love most is feeling a little lost, without knowing for sure where I am. To get to some neighbourhood and to discover new places that I’ve never been to. To ride quietly, to look at houses, at cars, at people living their lives. That’s what I love.”
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