Ready…Set… Daven!

Who would have imagined a display of Jewish unity emerging from that most solitary of sports—long distance running?

Since its inception in 1983, the International Minyan for New York City Marathoners has been a model of Jewish unity—the joint project of an Orthodox shul-goer from New Jersey running his first marathon (me), and a rabbi from Queens (who also happened to be a 3:17 marathoner). I had just completed a year of aveilut for my mother, so my primary motive was to accommodate runners who were saying Kaddish but who would have to leave home before dawn on the day of the Marathon in order to get to the staging area on Staten Island at the appointed hour. Looking back over the past thirty years, however, I recall surprisingly few minyan participants saying Kaddish among the thousands who have davened in this minyan. Clearly, we had tapped into something more important than just a minyan of convenience for mourners.

We started out that first year with twenty-six people who showed up to daven at Fort Wadsworth. Last year, we had to expand to three minyanim to accommodate 140 daveners.

Daveners come from six continents, speaking many languages, young and old, male and female, from all levels of observance. Many bring their own tefillin, and many more ask to borrow. I’m always inspired by a runner who shares his tefillin with a stranger from halfway around the world, and it’s not uncommon for some to lay tefillin with us for the first time in their lives. The women daveners will gravitate toward their own little section of the tent. One woman told me recently that she met her husband at the minyan four years ago; they still love running together. Some of our minyanaires have been with us every year since the beginning; others are first-timers, somehow hearing by word-of-mouth about this special attraction for Jewish runners at the world’s most prestigious road race.

The minyan, likely the longest-established religious service at any major sporting event in the world, could not have become a reality without the early and constant support of the late Fred Lebow, the legendary creator and promoter of the New York City Marathon, and world consultant on long-distance running. He designed the five-borough extravaganza that is telecast live, coast-to-coast, and brings millions in revenue to New York City every year. A whole book could be written about our minyan’s relationship with Fred. Suffice it to say that when, in just our third year, we had the chutzpah to ask him to move the Marathon from October to November to avoid a conflict with Simchat Torah, this Holocaust refugee with frum roots enthusiastically agreed, and that’s where it has remained ever since.

Showing the effects of chemotherapy, Fred Lebow (far left), founder of the New York City Marathon, listens as Rabbi Jim Michaels (far right), one of the founders of the minyan, invokes a blessing for his welfare at the 1990 minyan. The minyan, probably the longest-established religious service at any major sporting event in the world, was started in 1983. Courtesy of Peter Berkowsky of Livingston, New Jersey.

Our little tent, with standing-room only, provides minimal shelter on a cold November morning, so the premium is on getting through a complete service quickly. Still, they come, drawn as to a magnet, for the camaraderie of davening outdoors before setting out on perhaps the most fascinating 26.2-mile course anywhere. It’s a truly unique experience for Jews in the world of sport.

The 30th International Minyan for New York City Marathoners will be held at Fort Wadsworth, Staten Island, on November 4, 2012.

Peter Berkowsky lives in Livingston, New Jersey.

This article was featured in the Summer 2012 issue of Jewish Action.
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