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Running Rabbis Go the Distance — 26 Miles — To Raise Money for Charities

Those watching the ING New York City Marathon on November 1 should keep their eyes peeled for the Running Rabbis.

A minyan’s worth — 10 rabbis, cantors and rabbinical and cantorial students — will be running through the streets as part of a social action endeavor started by two Reform rabbis who want to change the world, literally one step at a time.

The Running Rabbis, recently featured in Runner’s World magazine, are less about speed than they are about tikkun olam. Founded by two graduates of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, rabbis Benjamin David and Scott Weiner, the group of Jewish clergy runs to raise funds for worthy causes. This year, they are running to raise $30,000 for Hole in the Wall Camps, where children with serious and life-threatening medical conditions can enjoy summer fun for free. As of mid-October, they had raised more than $21,000.

As rabbinical students, Weiner and David worked in the college’s soup kitchen. They liked their work there, Weiner said, but found that upon graduating, “creative involvement in social justice wasn’t at our fingertips in the congregational world.”

Weiner and David, running partners as well as study partners, ran the New York City Marathon together for the first time in 2005. “The people in our lives were really taken by the idea of two rabbis running the marathon,” said David, rabbi at Temple Sinai of Roslyn, N.Y. “So we decided to try to use that kind of attention for something good.”

The pair founded Running Rabbis in 2005. Since then, they have run marathons and half marathons in at least five states and raised almost $30,000 for various causes, including the Starkey Hearing Foundation and the Organization for Autism Research.

Is a minyan of Running Rabbis more effectual than a rabbi running solo? For David, 32, the answer is a definitive yes. “Across the board, Judaism is about community and about bringing people together,” David said.

Rabbi Maurice Salth of New York City’s Central Synagogue, who describes himself as an “average” athlete, will be running a marathon for the first time this year, alongside his Central Synagogue colleague and veteran marathon runner Rabbi Michael Friedman. After cheering on runners in the New York City Marathon in 2004, Salth was inspired to race himself. Joining the Running Rabbis, he said, seemed like a natural outgrowth of that desire.

“I hope being a part of the Running Rabbis team will help remind people that their clergy are well-rounded people who are as comfortable repairing the world by running 26.2 miles as they are teaching Torah,” Salth said.

Weiner, 34, senior rabbi at New York’s Temple Israel of New Rochelle, said he hopes the group will become trans-denominational, but so far only Reform rabbis and rabbinical and cantorial students have joined in.

David said that his definition of who can participate is a fairly expansive one. “I like to think of the Running Rabbis as not just people who run and not just rabbis, but as people who are committed to doing good. If they’re interested in tzedakah, social action, and pursuing those ideas with their hands and feet, that’s a running rabbi in my book,” David said.

The group relies largely on word-of-mouth for publicity. “So far, our best advertising has been our shoulders,” Weiner remarked, alluding to the “” T-shirts the group members wear on their runs. “People find us after the race and ask, “Are you guys really rabbis?” Incredibly enough, he said, laughing, many people find it hard to believe that rabbis run marathons.

Weiner said the group tends to turn the most heads in the New York Marathon’s path through the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, home to many Hasidic Jews: “We definitely get some shocked faces as we run through Williamsburg.”

The rabbis log their miles of marathon training between funerals, weddings, counseling and their myriad other responsibilities. “If you can survive the training,” David said, “you can survive the marathon.”

The rabbis noted that because of their marathon running, not only do congregants have feelings of nakhes (pride and joy) for them, but they also respect them more. “It adds to the respect that they have for us — not only because marathons are challenging things to do, but also because they know how busy rabbis are, and how hard it is to do marathon training,” Weiner said. “It makes them say, ‘Well, if they can do it, I could do it!’”

“Our congregations are proud that rabbis are leading by example,” David said. “We’re literally practicing what we preach: Let’s perform tikkun olam and help people who genuinely need our help. People are responding to that.”

In addition to working on mending the world, he acknowledged that Running Rabbis provides an outlet for participants’ healthy competitive streaks.

“We’re interested in promoting tikkun olam and galvanizing the community, but we also happen to be pretty competitive,” said David, a longtime runner. “I’m interested in all the aspects of the sport, and getting the very best out of myself in training.” He runs 55 miles a week, and over the course of a year attempts to log close to 1,800 miles.

When asked who is the fastest Running Rabbi, David answered — arguably, rabbinically — “That’s up for debate.”

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