(January 25, 2018 / JNS) Some run to stay fit. Others enjoy the physical and mental challenge. But participating organizations in this year’s Jerusalem Marathon not only enjoy such personal benefits—they are also running for social causes.
According to Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, more than 6,000 participants ran “to raise money for all sorts of social NGOs” last year. Likewise, thousands of runners and dozens of Jerusalem-based NGOs will organize running teams this year with the goal of aiding Israeli populations in need of support. Marathon organizers say that running on behalf of organizations adds value to the runners’ experience by incorporating social and communal dimensions.
Rabbi Meir Kaniel—a representative in North America for Kav L’Noar, one of the marathon’s participating organizations—oversees the “Rabbis Can Run” initiative, which brings Orthodox rabbis from the U.S. to the marathon in order to raise money for their programs back home.
Kav L’Noar provides resources and programs for English-speaking immigrants struggling to adjust to Israel and for at-risk youths. The organization’s work has expanded to the native Israeli population in the last several years, providing mentorship in more than 30 Jerusalem schools.
“I got into running five years ago after I experienced some health challenges. Running helped me in my life, so I had this epiphany of helping other rabbis to get in shape and become more health conscious, and at the same time, to do something fun and creative and raise awareness and money for Kav L’Noar,” Kaniel said regarding why he started “Rabbis Can Run.”
“The way in which running creates capacity for growth and confidence and connects the spiritual to the physical is incredible,” he told JNS. “The experience of doing something challenging and beyond what the rabbis [believe they are] capable of doing has a tremendous impact on their inner strength, and increases confidence in themselves that they can do much more than they thought, in every aspect of their life.”
Shira Kochman, marathon coordinator for the Lone Soldier Center, an organization that provides support to IDF soldiers who do not have family members living in Israel, also spoke of the social benefit of running with an NGO.
“Most of the people who run with us are or were lone soldiers, or have family members and friends who were,” she told JNS. “They feel like they’re helping themselves, their family members or other people getting help from the organization.”
A close friend of Harriet Levin, the mother of Michael Levin, a lone soldier killed in the Second Lebanon War in 2006, flies into Israel from the U.S. to participate in the marathon each year with the Lone Soldier Center. The center was established in Michael Levin’s memory.
Kaniel and Kochman both believe the marathon is an ideal way to strengthen Israel-Diaspora relations.
“To run here is special,” said Kaniel. “The rabbis connect with Jerusalem and Israel in a special way, connecting with 30,000 other Jews running the marathon.”
Last year, in Rabbis Can Run’s first year, three rabbis came from across North America to run their first 10K race. This year, the initiative is organizing a team of 10 rabbis to train for three months and to fundraise.
A group of 10-15 runners comes in from abroad to run with the Lone Soldier Center, joining the soldiers who run with the center. According to Ari Kalker, a founder of the Lone Soldier Center and one of Michael Levin’s roommates, the participation of lone soldiers in the marathon and the IDF in general provides inspiration for the rest of Israel.
“They act as motivating factors for the Israelis, because while they could have been on the beach in Miami right now, they instead chose to become a soldier for the state of Israel. What seems so absurd to Israelis is so obvious to Americans and motivates the Israelis,” he told JNS.
“I think that any group of young people doing something good and working together for the greater good, society as a whole finds that very inspirational,” added Kalker, who noted that the lone soldiers who return to the Diaspora after serving in the IDF or running the marathon become the “best possible advocates that Israel could ever have.”
According to Kaniel, the marathon brings tourists to Israel that would otherwise never come as typical marathon enrollees, and highlights that the Jewish community can and should focus more on physical health.
“Certainly, Rabbis Can Run offers a unique contribution to marathon and to Jerusalem,” he said. “The rabbis are not what Mayor Barkat envisioned, people think it’s crazy. But doing something radical like bringing American rabbis to participate in a marathon puts that out there that if the rabbis can, with their busy schedules, get in shape and run in a marathon, you can too.”