Thirty orthodox rabbis ran, but first they davened Shacharit and taught the Daf Yomi. Then they did either a 10K, a half marathon of about 13 miles, or in one case an 18-mile run. These rabbis hail from 24 cities in the United States, Israel and Canada.
Rabbi Meir Kaniel of Passaic, New Jersey, provided a brief history of the Rabbis Can Run (RCR) project, which began in 2016. “I began running due to some health issues, with the encouragement of my rebbe. The first time I nearly collapsed after 90 seconds. But only 8 weeks later and with a great deal of consistency, I was able to run for 90 minutes straight, a feat that seemed completely impossible just weeks before. It was a life changing moment for me, and gave me the strength and inspiration to continue training and reach new heights.
“About a year and a half later I completed my first full marathon, and used the race to raise money for Kav L’Noar, who were instrumental in helping me develop my own running and as a tool that could help others.”
Rabbi Kaniel explained that after a few successful personal campaigns for Kav L’Noar, he sought other creative ways to use running to help others. “In 2016 I had a divinely inspired epiphany about specifically training rabbis and helping them improve their health. For me rabbis were the perfect target audience, since I had discovered so much spirituality and growth potential from running through my own personal journey, and I knew that they too would appreciate and benefit most from this learning. As community leaders and role models with the potential to inspire others in their own communities, Rabbis were the perfect partners to help spread the word regarding the spirituality of running and importance of improved health.”
In 2017 Rabbi Kaniel launched the first group of three Rabbis to benefit Kav L’Noar. Rabbi Kaniel explained that, very generally, “Rabbis don’t like to exercise, they don’t like to fundraise or travel, and they almost never make additional commitments. Yet, I was trying to get them to do all the above.” But when three rabbis agreed; “RabbisCanRun.org” was born.
In 2018 the field had expanded to 10 rabbis; 13 in 2019, adding Olami as a charitable recipient. Olami is a young, vibrant kiruv community interested in the search for meaning, joy and unique ways towards self-improvement and making the world a better place.
For 2022, the program was organized exclusively in partnership with Olami, and the field of participants increased to 30 Rabbis who trained and agreed to fundraise for a most worthy cause. “Shortly after RCR was launched, I also started coaching children and a few years later, adults. Now I offer both local and virtual programs for kids and adults, and train many runners each year all across the country, helping them to discover how running can help them improve their health while also teaching so many life lessons and provide personal growth.”
Rabbi Kaniel is also a licensed social worker, so he has great appreciation for the influence that running creates in building life skills such as self-awareness, resilience, mental toughness and self-confidence. Recently he created a blog called “runninginspired.org,” where he shares these lessons as well as running and training tips for new runners. “It’s hard to fathom how a simple recommendation to start running from my rebbe has led to so many new runners and has thank God changed so many lives.” He defines that outcome as a miracle.
The goal of RCR is to encourage Rabbis to embark on a journey towards healthier living. With a database of about a thousand rabbis, Rabbi Kaniel invites rabbis to join via email. He related that his children helped search for rabbis’ emails online and spent hours collecting data. “Many of the rabbis who are still exercising today and whose lives have changed as a result of our program are doing so thanks to the hours of time invested by my own young kids after finishing their homework!”
Initially, each rabbi committed to making their best effort to fundraise $3,000 to benefit Olami. The fundraising goal was reduced this year in order to make it accessible to more rabbis, thus doubling the size of the RCR runner group from previous years.
Rabbi Ari Zahtz, Maggid Shiur for RIETS at Yeshiva University, and Assistant Rabbi for Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, New Jersey, completed the 10K run this year. “I’ve never run before three months ago. I didn’t think it was possible,” he said, but wanted to share this message of chizuk.
“Push yourself beyond your comfort zone. There’s moments when the yetzer ha rah (the evil influence) says you can’t do it; but you push through and say ‘No: I can do it, I’ve set a goal and it’s reasonable.’ And if you have a coach or a rebbe who’s pushing you, even things that seem impossible are actually possible.” He applies this concept to areas of health, ruchnius and learning, and continues with his message that, “If we are regimented and push ourselves a little bit out of our comfort zone, it’s amazing what we can actually accomplish.”
Rabbi Shlomo Kohn, Director of Outreach for Bensalem Jewish Outreach Center, Bensalem, Pennsylvania, poignantly observed, “RCR has taught me that things which may seem out of our reach are attainable and one can achieve the impossible. I never thought I could run 6.2 miles non-stop; yet I did! If I can reach this goal, then what else can I do?”
Rabbi Danny Wolfe from Denver, Colorado commented, “Dr. Owen Anderson, a well-known running coach, explained to us that during the run, it’s easy to let your mind wander and to constantly be thinking about how many more miles you have left. This can leave one in a total state of despondence. He explained that it’s vital to focus only on the current mile, not how many remain ahead. This powerful tool got me to the finish line, and the principle applies to other areas of life as well. We realize we have so much more to learn, and we see there are so many ways we still need to grow. There is so much room for improvement—it feels overwhelming. We need to focus on overcoming the challenges we face right now, and not look at the entire road ahead. That way we can gradually advance on our journey towards continuous growth.”
Rabbi Daniel Rosenfelt, of the Fleetwood Synagogue in Mount Vernon, New York, explained what was meaningful for him. “Having the opportunity to actually practice what I preach. To look at the mirror and see that I can be better. That I need to be better. RCR provided me with a safe haven of rabbis of different ages, different viewpoints on life and religion. But with one goal: to defeat our Yetzer Hara and never stop running.”
Rabbi Nachi Klein, who did the longest run at eighteen miles, explained his particular challenge of being the only one left in the run and knowing he would finish alone and last. “I turned to the Almighty to carry me through…that I didn’t have to do it alone. I (also) realized the importance of having people cheering you on. When the troops came out for the last one hundred yards, I felt like life was literally being poured back into me.”
A post-race celebration featured all of the rabbis, each sharing something they are proud of from their training or the race. As it turns out, quipped Rabbi Kaniel, one of the biggest challenges was to limit 30 Rabbis to speak for just two minutes each! One of the most impactful speeches was from a rabbi who shared that he grew up as the ‘fat kid who could never run,’ and truly believed this challenge was impossible for him. He tearfully shared the extraordinarily personal experience that completing the 10K race literally altered his self-perception, healing a part of him that had felt broken his whole life.
Said Rabbi Kaniel: “By the time he finished we were all crying with him.”
What resonates the most to him is that with incredible siyata dishmaya, all of the Rabbis finished their training and their race despite the myriad obstacles. There were injuries, canceled flights, and some came from locations where up until the last possible moment, travel was restricted. That 100% of the runners finished the race despite injuries and other issues, was, in his view, “An open miracle!”
Rabbi Kaniel is very grateful for the great support of Olami and his corporate sponsors. However, he gives all the credit to Hashem and his wife, who was instrumental in helping to start RCR and who sacrifices so much every day for the benefit of helping Rabbis improve their health. All their zechusim are in her merit.