Rabbi Is in Training For the Long Run

By Josh Richman

Published October 29, 2004, issue of October 29, 2004.
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SAN FRANCISCO — It has been a long, strange, wonderful run for Rabbi Lisa Gelber. Literally.

The 36-year-old associate dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Rabbinical School in New York ran a marathon through San Francisco last Sunday, physically expressing her spiritual passions: celebrating women’s role in the rabbinate, pursuing cures for blood cancers and digging deeper into her own faith.

Gelber’s road to the Golden Gate Park finish line began in Mercer Island, Wash., where the Westchester County native served Herzl-Ner Tamid Conservative Congregation after her JTS ordination in 1996. Her congregation supported Jewish families seeking treatment at Seattle’s Fred

Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, so when one of Gelber’s seminary friends was diagnosed with leukemia and came for a bone-marrow transplant, the Herzl-Ner Tamid community took him in. Unfortunately, he died soon after. During those same months, Gelber was in two car accidents, leaving her “trying to heal my body and my spirit.”

As she recovered physically, she received a postcard from Team in Training, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s endurance sports training program that prepares people for marathons, triathlons and 100-mile bike rides. Since 1988, more than 220,000 Team Training volunteers have helped raise more than $500 million for the cause.

“I trained to walk the Dublin Marathon in October 2000… and it was one of the most profoundly spiritual experiences of my life,” she said. She saw it as a means of tikkun olam, helping others and healing the world through giving of the self; she did it again in 2003, walking the Honolulu Marathon.

She’d been pondering the upcoming anniversary of the first female Conservative rabbi’s 1985 ordination from JTS when Team in Training notified her of the Nike 26.2 marathon in San Francisco, marking the 20th anniversary of the first all-women’s marathon and benefiting the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. “It was basically pitched as a marathon to celebrate women’s achievements, and I thought, ‘How great that I can celebrate these two loves of mine.’”

Later, Gelber realized the marathon’s date, October 24, would be 20 years to the day since the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards voted to start ordaining women as Conservative rabbis.

“It was organic, it all sort of fell into place,” she said; she decided to run, not walk.

In training, she ran a half-marathon last August in New York; her knee hurt, and at mile 12 she was faltering. A woman ran by, noted her Team in Training t-shirt and came back; she was a leukemia survivor, and thanked Gelber for being there. After that, Gelber said: “I thought, ‘Of course I can do the last mile.’”

So Gelber began running Sunday in the chilly predawn dark, and during six hours and 25 minutes, watched the fog burn off to reveal the Pacific’s crashing waves, the Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman’s Wharf. She raised more than $7,000, bringing her three-marathon total to more than $30,000. Nike had placed signs along the route naming “26.2 reasons to run”; one of those resounded with Gelber.

“It was, ‘I run to inspire a girl to follow my lead,’” she said. “That’s how I was able to connect running to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, and proving to myself I could do a marathon, and honoring what women do — not just in the rabbinate, but how women’s voices can effect change in the world.”

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