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'Running Rabbis' Ready for New York Marathon

October 29, 2009 By:
Fredda Sacharow, JE Feature
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Rabbi Benjamin David (right) of Cherry Hill, N.J., and a friend run for "Team for Kids" during the 2006 New York City Marathon

In their day jobs, they deliver sermons, chant Kabbalat Shabbat services, teach Hebrew school, cram for rabbinical-school exams, and conduct funerals and Bar Mitzvah ceremonies.

On their own time, they run. Boy, do they run!

Ten religious leaders who've dubbed themselves the "Running Rabbis" will be among the 42,000 men and women taking part in the 40th New York City Marathon this Sunday, Nov. 1, wending their way through five boroughs over a 26.2-mile course.

With every mile they cover, this marathon minyan will be raising funds for the "Hole in the Wall Camp," in a very real sense taking the concept of tikkun olam -- repairing the world -- right to the streets.

"We heard about the Paul Newman cause [for seriously ill youngsters], and it seemed to fit exactly what we're trying to do: help children, engage in true tzedakah, provide for those most in need," said Rabbi Benjamin David, a Cherry Hill, N.J., native who formed the loose coalition of runners after experiencing his first marathon in 2003, while still in rabbinical school.

Members of the team, including several with Philadelphia-area ties, dedicate each marathon or half-marathon they compete in to a different charity.

Past recipients have included the Starkey Hearing Foundation, which provides hearing aids for needy children; the Organization for Autism Research; and the Reform movement's overnight camping program.

"This will be my 10th marathon, and I think just about all of them have been run with others in the name of a cause," said David, associate rabbi at Temple Sinai of Roslyn on Long Island.

David, whose best marathon time is 3 hours, 43 minutes, logs a cool 2,000 miles a year, using the rare alone time "thinking about my family, what I'm going to eat when I finish, how to put in the miles and keep the sense of commitment to give it my all."

This year's charity speaks to the heart of Rabbi Peter Rigler of Temple Sholom in Broomall, who started running about a few years ago when his daughter, Maya, now a healthy erkindergartner, was diagnosed at age 2 with a form of childhood cancer called Wilm's tumor.

Putting on pounds and seeking a healthier physical outlet than eating, Rigler began with 10-minute jogs, adding miles until he felt strong enough to enter -- and complete -- the Philadelphia marathon last November. Time: 4 hours, 6 minutes.

These days, Rigler runs six days a week, delivering Maya and her younger brother, Nathan, to school and day care, then setting off through Valley Forge or the Philadelphia art-museum area for four- or five-hour stints.

"I rarely leave a run with many worries -- I feel as though I've sorted things out," said Rigler. "Rituals help us frame our lives, and for me, the ritual of running helps me to slow down. I tend to get very reflective when I run."

Training runs can cover 22 miles, peaking about a month before the marathon itself.

For this clergyman, the timing made for a particularly rigorous fall season.

"I was sore throughout the High Holidays -- Yom Kippur was about as bad as it could get," Rigler acknowledged wryly.

'Worth Talking About

Fellow athlete Matthew Soffer, a fifth-year student at the Hebrew Rabbinical College in New York and an intern at Main Line Reform Temple, Beth Elohim in Wynnewood, is tickled that his congregants -- especially the younger ones -- see a religious leader who doesn't fit the traditional mold.

Noting that the rabbis have gotten a fair amount of press, including a lengthy feature in the November edition of Runner's World Magazine, Soffer said that the attention is only logical.

"People have an image of a rabbi, and it's not running," he said. "If it is running, it's running to shul -- not to the finish line. So it doesn't really surprise me that people find it cool and noteworthy and worth talking about."

It was this novelty that initially inspired Benjamin David to reach out to colleagues and friends to launch the group, most of whose members know each other either personally or professionally.

"People are intrigued by the idea of rabbis running marathons; it seems to be an anomaly in their minds," said David. "So I thought, why not use this for good?"

He added that the first race the running mates participated in together in 2005 raised several thousand dollars for the HUC's community soup kitchen.

In addition to David, Rigler and Soffer, group members who will participate in Sunday's marathon are: Adam David, Benjamin's brother and an honorary member as the son of a rabbi (Jerome David of Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill); Rabbi Michael Friedman, associate rabbi of New York's Central Synagogue; David Frommer, cantorial student at HUC; Neil Hirsch, student at HUC; U.S. Naval Chaplain Rabbi Seth Phillips; Rabbi Maurice Salth of Central Synagogue; and group co-founder Rabbi Scott Weiner of Temple Israel, New Rochelle, N.Y.

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