Two-day Yom Tovs are decadent enough, but double-day holidays that run into the Sabbath are nothing short of gluttonous. This fall, observant Jews are facing a series of three-day festivals that will surely result in marathon large meals, loosened pants and discarded belts. But one group of New Yorkers living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side compensates for excess eating with an aerobic event they call the Havdalah Hustle.
On the final day of a three-day eating-fest three years ago, frequent runner (and New York City Marathon trainee) Jeff Stier shared a meal with some friends who expressed a desire to work off the countless calories they’d consumed. “All the sitting around and eating gets kind of exhausting,” Stier said. “I couldn’t wait to go out for a run.” So he organized a jog around the Central Park reservoir that Saturday evening, a half-hour after sundown. Today, the group has expanded to include 30 members between the ages of 25 and 40 (though usually only four or five show up at a time), and the running takes place almost every week of the year.
Stier is never quite sure who from his extended network of friends will knock on his door on any given Saturday night, but usually he can bet on his “trusted adviser and most reliable runner,” Lazer Neiger. One time, the two even ran during one of the city’s worst blizzards.
While the runners change, the location remains the same: the reservoir, which covers 1.55 miles. The speed stays at what runners call a conversational pace. Nonexpert runners who “can keep up” with two laps around the reservoir are welcome. But iPods are shunned and socializing is encouraged. “We’ll often talk to each other about what’s going on that night and make plans to go out later,” Neiger said.
In keeping with the group’s name, the evening begins with the recitation of the Havdalah, the blessing that marks the end of the Sabbath and beginning of the new week. This always takes place on the expansive terrace of Stier’s garden apartment as his three pet turtles and Koi fish look on.
Stier says that he feels nothing short of secure when he runs with the group at night — a testament to the safeness of Central Park and of New York City in general these days.
Stier, who is also the associate director of the American Council on Science and Health, is a self-proclaimed “event coordinator,” and organizes a fair number of get-togethers in his free time. But he particularly enjoys promoting a healthy lifestyle within his own Modern Orthodox community, which celebrates the Sabbath with multi-course meals. “I’m always running outside,” said Stier, who lives right off Central Park, “and I’m glad that this group is getting more people from our community out exercising in the park, even if it’s at a rather ‘unorthodox’ time.”
Lucy Cohen Blatter is a freelance writer living in Manhattan.