When Adam Wachs signed up for a yeshiva gap-year program between high school and college, he knew that he'd be spending much of his time — more than nine hours a day — sitting in the beit midrash pouring over ancient Jewish texts while learning Hebrew, and discussing Bible and Zionism.
He did not expect, however, to compete in the Jerusalem half-marathon along with 25 other students from his yeshiva who were participating in the March 25 races, marking Jerusalem's first marathon.
Wachs, 18, of Lower Merion, never intended to run the 13-mile race. Though an athlete since his days at the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School and the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, he now runs three times each week just to stay fit.
Enter Joe Benun, a friend from the same program, Yeshivat Eretz Hatzvi in Jerusalem. Benun — himself an accomplished runner, having completed an Iron Man triathlon a few months earlier — convinced Wachs to seize the opportunity to run.
"I realized that it was a great chance to be a part of the Israeli culture," said Wachs, who initially rejected Benun's overtures. "Being part of a yeshiva running team to raise money for charity made this an even better cause."
Team Tzvi, as the yeshiva runners called themselves, partnered with an Israeli organization called Tikvot, which provides athletic opportunities for soldiers who have suffered physical injuries, including many amputees. Tzvi raised more than $18,000 to purchase a special racing leg for Eitan Hermon, a soldier injured in the Second Lebanon War. Hermon used to run competitively before his injury, and swore as he was being taken to the hospital that he would run another marathon.
The marathon gained added significance in the aftermath of a bomb that exploded near the International Convention Center (Binyanei Ha'Uma) across from the Jerusalem Central Bus Station, killing one and injuring 30, two days prior.
"The best way to deal with terror is to show the terrorists that we're not going to move away," and that "we're not going to be scared," said Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. "Events in Jerusalem will not be canceled, and Jerusalem will not stop running."
Wachs agreed. "I felt like I was supporting Israel by running right after the bombing," he said, adding that it was encouraging to see schoolchildren handing out water along the route and cheering the runners on.
A Family Affair
Michael Wachs, Adam's father and a veteran of seven full and seven half-marathons, had been visiting his son and showed up to cheer him on. He and his wife, Lisa, who frequently attend the Lower Merion Synagogue and Aish HaTorah, encouraged Adam to run — and not just because they both used to run marathons themselves.
"Watching Adam compete successfully in the Jerusalem half-marathon in the same week as the bomb went off is a testament to the strength, resolve and character of the Jewish state. I am so very proud that Adam participated in this important first for Israel," said Michael Wachs.
Spirits were high before the race, when large groups of people — many of them soldiers preparing to run — danced in circles and sang Zionist songs. Musicians performed on a massive stage, which was also used to distribute awards. The top three winners were from Kenya.
"This is a tremendous day for the entire city of Jerusalem," announced Barkat, the mayor, who also completed 13 miles.
"Having the mayor run with us made me feel like I was part of something important," said Wachs.
More than 10,000 runners competed in the daylong event, which included a marathon, half-marathon and 10-kilometer races. Half of the competitors came from abroad, filling the city's hotels. The marathon was such a boon to Jerusalem that the mayor already announced next year's date — March 16.
Running provided the perfect opportunity to see the city, which Wachs said had become familiar territory, in a new light. The hilly route passed through the Jaffa Gate, Mount Scopus, Sultan's Pool and the Mount of Olives.
After a weekly Zionism class in yeshiva, running provided a "way for me to bring what I learned outside of the classroom," explained Wachs, who plans to attend the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania next year. "We always learn that actions speak the loudest. Today, in a sense, I'm doing my part in supporting the Zionist cause."
Wachs crossed the finish line 2 hours and 8 minutes after he began from the Knesset building.
His campaign to make a difference won't stop with his year in Israel. In September, he plans to run the Philadelphia half-marathon, most likely to raise money again for charity.