In a year when bar and bat mitzvahs looked nothing like they did before the coronavirus pandemic, Ryan Freed’s special day was miles ahead of the rest.
Not for the large party, DJ, or swag that were often features of pre-pandemic bar mitzvahs, but for the 750 miles he logged on his bike and the $4,500 he raised to combat food insecurity.
The Swampscott 13-year-old accrued the miles by going to school or just riding with friends over several months while participating in the virtual Boston to Bar Harbor Challenge.
This year, instead of starting at Boston Common and reaching various checkpoints before ending at the Maine coast, the challenge is being held virtually. Proceeds support food banks and hunger relief programs in New England.
And by coincidence, Ryan’s Torah portion for his bar mitzvah included pe’ah, the Biblical edict along the same path.
“My Torah portion was about the holidays and how the Torah commanded the farmers to leave the corners of their fields for the poor to come in and collect,” Ryan said.
Ryan’s idea to use his love of biking as a means of tzedakah came about after his dad found out about the challenge on Twitter.
“And so, we thought it would be good for me, and I actually didn’t think that I could finish,” Ryan said. “I don’t think any of us thought that I could finish because it’s a lot and I’m tiny.”
Ryan started the virtual challenge at the start of September. By logging his miles online, the challenge told him where he would be if he actually rode the route.
“And so, I didn’t actually literally bike to Bar Harbor, but I still symbolically did it,” Ryan said.
Ryan’s bar mitzvah was held on April 24 at Temple Emanu-El along the Marblehead Rail Trail, which is also Ryan’s route from his home on Walker Road in Swampscott to Epstein Hillel School in Marblehead. It’s a 6-mile round trip.
By riding to school and back, he was able to accrue miles. On the weekends, if the weather was nice, he could get in 20 to 30 miles.
He would ride from his house to the Tides Restaurant in Nahant and back. He rode to see his friends in Salem. Once, he rode to Salem High, then back to Warwick Place in Marblehead before biking home. He tracked his miles on a cycling app on his phone.
He had until March 7 to complete the challenge, despite not being able to get out much in the winter. He racked up most of his miles before December, doing about half of the riding with friends from school who live in his neighborhood.
“The parents noticed Ryan was biking to and from school, and reached out to me asking if their kids could bike with him, and I said, ‘Sure, I would love friends,’” his mother Meredith said.
Ryan raised $4,500 for the Greater Boston Food Bank. Those who pledged gave him motivation to keep going. His grandparents gave him $1 for each mile he biked. He earned a finisher’s medal and a T-shirt for his effort.
Due to restrictions of the pandemic, Ryan’s bar mitzvah had a limited number of in-person guests.
“We had 25 people,” said Meredith, “that didn’t include any vendors.” The bar mitzvah was broadcast on Zoom, with 100 people watching online. There were about a dozen adults in the sanctuary, including Ryan’s parents, Andrew and Meredith; Meredith’s mom, her sister, and Andrew’s parents and brother. About a dozen friends from Ryan’s school came.
“It was really nice,” Meredith said. “It was very intimate. It was kind of cool because they had a big screen set up in the back of the sanctuary so you could see all the people on Zoom watching with you. That was really cool.”
The Zoom ceremony allowed Meredith’s aunt and uncle to join from Arizona, and an aunt and uncle in Virginia to watch as well.
“Yeah, friends from all over the country that probably wouldn’t have been able to come got to share in it, so that was really, really neat,” Meredith said. “The rabbi was so welcoming and kind and comforting and inclusive and it was just a really relaxed setting. I guess without all the people there, I think he felt a little more comfortable than having 200 people looking back at you.”
After the bar mitzvah, the adults and Ryan ate at Antique Table in Lynn. Meredith also gave the kids gift cards to The Cookie Monstah in Vinnin Square.
Ryan even designed a snapback hat for his friends, with an embroidered logo of his bike and the date, “4.24.21.”
“They [the kids] all got a little something, and I think they all really enjoyed just being in the sanctuary and supporting their friend,” Meredith said. “The kids were all very respectful. They were quiet. They didn’t talk. They didn’t interrupt the service in any way. They were wonderful.”
Instead of a big party now, the Freeds are planning a graduation party when Ryan graduates Epstein Hillel in 2022.