You have to be quick to catch a word with Ari Solomont or he’s likely to whizz past you on his bicycle. As founder and director of Cycle for Unity, which helps volunteer cyclists raise funds for charitable causes, Ari is usually training for his next ride. It could be anywhere in Israel, or perhaps somewhere in Europe.
But that is the end of the story. Let’s go back to Ari Solomont, the small town Massachusetts boy who spent most of his lifetime in NCSY. “Lowell had few Jewish kids. I was pretty isolated,” he says. With the enthusiasm of a seasoned storyteller, Ari tells the story of why he started wearing a yarmulka. “I was a little kid in summer camp and I wore a yarmulka there because it was a Jewish place. For some reason, my counselor was fired after only the first five days of the season. He snuck back into camp in the middle of the night, crept over to my bunk and woke me up. ‘Always wear your kippah,’ he whispered, and then he left. I don’t remember his name or anything about him except his long hair, clogs and tee shirt. Who knows? Maybe he was Eliyahu HaNavi in jeans. In any case, after that I wouldn’t take off my kippah, no matter what.”
When Ari’s older sister went to her first NCSY Shabbaton, she came back and told him, “You’d love it. All the guys there wear a yarmulka.” As soon as he was old enough, Ari did go to NCSY. “Above all, I felt accepted,” he recalls. “Judaism was alive. I saw things there, not only with my eyes, but with my neshamah (soul).”
From then on, Ari’s NCSY advisors played a major role in his serious decisions. Encouraged to seek a yeshiva high school, his parents (“always supportive”) allowed him to go to the New England Academy of Torah in Providence, Rhode Island. “Back in the 1980s, it was one of the few yeshivot outside of New York that had dormitories, so we had NCSYers from all over the country. It was a phenomenal environment.”
Eventually, Ari rose to leadership, ultimately becoming national vice president of Junior NCSY. “I learned everything I know about leadership from NCSY,” he explains. “I learned to take responsibility for other people, to take initiatives, and to be involved.”
Sarah Beth Edelman, whom Ari married in 1988, was also an NCSYer but, no — they are not the classic “met at NCSY” couple. Though they were at many of the same events, “To tell the truth, she hung out with those wild kids from LA. They were too loud for this quiet guy from Lowell,” Ari laughs. When they later met in Israel, they found that they shared warm NCSY memories, and more importantly, the commitment to make Judaism meaningful to others.
After acquiring Business degrees at Touro College, and becoming a licensed Nursing Home Administrator, Ari spent five years in Lowell, working in the nursing home industry. And then came THE phone call from National NCSY Director Rabbi Raphael Butler, with whom Ari had always had a warm relationship. They met in Boston, and Rabbi Butler made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: Regional Director of New England NCSY. It was a no-brainer.
Ari reflects that the challenges of the New England Region, what he calls “the Yale/Harvard Belt,” were unique. “We had to engage the intellect and foster the spirit to win over the parents as well as the kids. But I was building on the wonderful precedent set by my predecessor, Rebbetzin Peggy Weiss, a”h. Every new NCSY leader builds on previous successes.”
Back then, in the early 1990s, there was no social media to help develop the region. But Ari had lots of energy and an encouraging wife. “I drove 180,000 miles in three years, connecting with kids and shuls all over New England,” he says. Ari continued building, growing NCSY for ten years.
And in the process, he grew too. In his ninth year as regional director, he went to New York to present a long-range strategic plan for his region to NCSY brass. He had been totally enjoying his work in NCSY, and the experience had heightened his sensitivity to spirituality. “As much as I loved NCSY, my longing to be in Israel grew, and the pull of Aliyah became irresistible. There I was on the Mass Turnpike at 2:00 a.m., driving home from New York. I was listening to a tape of the Diaspora Yeshiva Band, and the song that got to me was ‘Jerusalem is Calling.’ I knew that the time had come to take my family to the next phase of our lives in Eretz Yisrael.”
So in 2003, the Solomont family — now including four children — moved to Chashmonaim. Sarah Beth found work in her field as an expressive arts therapist, and Ari’s first position was with Ner L’Elef, an organization that trains Jewish outreach workers and places them worldwide. Drawing upon his experience in NCSY, Ari easily took to his responsibilities of preparing couples for the “real Jewish world” beyond strong Jewish enclaves. Later, he worked for Yeshiva University, as director of its S. Daniel Abraham Israel Program and recruiting public school students for the Mechina program (geared toward students who had not yet had the opportunity to gain a strong foundation in
But three years ago, a new idea bubbled up in his creative mind, one he couldn’t ignore. A student he was mentoring had made the commitment to participate in a fundraising bike ride to benefit a hospital, and Ari pledged to help too.
It was hard, but the experience was exhilarating. “I was tired and sore, but I realized that here was a new way to raise funds for many good causes.” Using the “charity of choice” model, Ari founded Cycle for Unity. As explained on CFU’s website, this is a “Choose Your Own Adventure” type of enterprise. Institutions and independent groups of all sizes can work with Cycle for Unity to benefit from charitable cycling events in Israel.
In fact, in less than two years Cycle for Unity has helped raise more than $250,000 for non-profits. This summer, he is running cycling events in Tuscany, Slovenia, Romania, and Greece. Then it’s back to Israel for breathtaking trips from north to south. Passion- ate about his new mission, Ari predicts that “Cycle for Unity will kick start a revolution of Jewish
activism and active living — getting young adults and professionals excited about giving, learning, and connecting to Jewish life through inspirational and challenging cycling adventures. This touches mind, body and soul.”
It’s relatively uncharted territory, but whenever he feels trepidation about a new project, Ari recalls what an NCSY mentor told him years ago: “He said, ‘You never have to be afraid when you’re working for the good of the Jewish community. God will give you the Siyata D’shmaya (Divine assistance) to succeed.’ And you know? I’ve found that it’s true!”
To find out more about Ari’s organization and how you can participate, visit cycleforunity.org.
All Alumni Spotlight profiles are written by Charlotte Friedland, editor of Reunion.
Read more articles from Reunion here.