While classic cars are often admired more than they're actually driven, Gene Epstein is bucking that tradition and preparing to get his 1954 white Cadillac Eldorado convertible primed for a truly momentous journey. In the coming months, Epstein, who lives in Newtown, will add radial whitewall tires to his vehicle, take it for a 50-mile test drive, and then pack up everything from fan belts to spark plugs to a carburetor gasket.
It's at this point, though, that Epstein will really put his Cadillac's roaring V8 engine to the test, along the winding roads and high-speed highways in England, France, Switzerland, Italy, Greece and, finally, Israel.
Epstein will be participating in the 2008 JNF London to Jerusalem Car Rally set for May 18 to June 5. Organizers estimate that the trip will draw around 30 to 35 cars carrying 60 to 70 people.
Current plans call for the drivers to start in London, have a short sea-crossing to France, then drive south to Chantilly and Dijon; to Neuchâtel, Switzerland; and then to the Italian cities of Lago Di Como, Bolzano, Venice, Siena, Rome, Naples and Bari. After a ferry ride, the drive continues to Mount Olympus in Greece, then finalizes with a short flight into Israel to visit Mizpe Ramon, Eilat and Jerusalem.
While on the journey, participants will visit historic Jewish sites. In Venice, for example, they will drive to what was once the Jewish ghetto, and tour Schola Spagnola, a Sephardic synagogue built in the 16th century.
There's also a stop in Bolzano, Italy, which served as a transit site for Jews who were eventually sent to concentration camps during the Holocaust.
Epstein participated in the rally back in 1996, and recalled becoming quite emotional after visiting a synagogue in a small Greek town that once housed 4,000 Jews.
"After Hitler came, they executed everybody but 12," he said.
"You're in a synagogue," he continued, "and you're singing where a whole Jewish community was exterminated. Their names are written and inscribed. It really gets you."
The journey is certainly not cheap, costing around 15,000 British pounds, or about $30,600 — plus shipping the car to the rally's starting point in London, according to Marc Green, senior campaign manager at JNF U.K. Proceeds from the event, he said, are estimated at 250,000 British pounds, or $511,000.
That money will benefit Aleh Negev, a 25-acre rehabilitation village near the southern Israeli town of Ofakim, added Green. When fully complete, the facility will be able to house 220 children and adults, and serve another 12,000 through outpatient care. The facility specializes in treating mentally and physically disabled individuals, focusing on those 21 and older.
Green explained that he sees the trip as a way to enhance JNF funding and participation in the future. After participants finish the car rally, they're more likely to donate future time or money. "A lot of people who come on the car rallies become trustees and members of the board," he said.
The London to Jerusalem car rally was established 13 years ago. Because classic or collector cars are involved, there's always a chance that one may malfunction, so mechanics will follow the line of cars with their own portable shops, ready to fix problems or even provide a replacement car, if necessary.
Before the flight from Mount Olympus to Tel Aviv, the vehicles get set to be shipped to Israel, where the group spends its final four days. Green said the drivers plan to visit the Ramon air-force base in the Negev, where they can race down a long runway.
He also said that in previous years, the rally has ended with the drivers positioning their cars in a long, dramatic arrangement either at the Western Wall or in front of the Knesset.