PITTSFIELD — When Dr. Stephen "Steve" Tosk geared up for a fall cycling trip across Israel sponsored by the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, he had heart set on taking in close up all the ancient sights, sounds and history of the nation's ancient culture.
But over the course of six days and 385 miles pedaling along with Israeli soldiers and veterans, Tosk discovered another enduring aspect of Israeli life, where he said people are "constantly under attack."
"I didn't know anything about the group but saw their indomitable spirit," he said.
Tosk, a chiropractor of Tosk Chiropractic, participated with some 40 other cyclists in "Israel On Two Wheels," an inaugural tour which paired civilians with wounded IDF veterans. FIDF is an organization that provides educational and well-being programs for Israeli soldiers, and FIDF's Strides Program is similar to the Wounded Warrior Project in the United States.
"One guy who joined us only had one leg, another, only one arm. Some had prosthetics. But all of them were strong, and really showed the ways they were able to overcome their handicaps," Tosk said.
IDF service is compulsory for Jewish and Druze citizens, both men and women, if they are over the age of 18. Much of their patrol revolves around the areas of West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Primary conflict is with Palestinians and Iranians and is controversial across fronts.
But for Tosk, whose said his main purpose there was to ride, the FDIF tour offered a chance for an outsider like him to get a more neutral view of Israel.
"The riding part was phenomenal," he said.
The 40 riders, who came from across the United States, departed from Kibbutz Gesher Haziv, near the Mediterranean Sea, and cycled along the northern border of Lebanon, between Oct. 24 and 31, ending in Kibbutz Kfar Giladi near the Red Sea. They climbed to Mount Hermon — Israel's tallest peak — and descended to the borders of Jordan, Syria and Israel, by the Sea of Galilee. Riders continued through the Jordan Valley to the Beit-She'an Valley with stops at the Dead Sea, then through the Negev Desert, and its HaMakhtesh HaGadol and Ramon craters. Along the way, they met civilians, visited IDF bases, and other historic and notable sites.
Tosk said he'll never forget the sight of flags flying at the Syrian border; the Cenacle in Jerusalem, where it's believed The Last Supper with Jesus was held; and the diversity of the terrain.
He said riding in and out of the craters was "the single most phenomenal day of riding in my life."
All the while, Tosk said, he reflected on the resilience of people who faced debilitating injury — from his own son to patients to the IDF soldiers he met — and how they are all able to move on.
"From a human standpoint, what these people are able to accomplish, it's just mind-blowing they're able to do what they do," he said.