April 9, 2024
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April 9, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Shabbos, the 4th of Cheshvan (October 29) marked the 28th yahrzeit of Fred Lebow, z”l.

When historians rank the 100 most interesting New York City personalities of the 20th century, chances are Fred will be on that list. A teenage Holocaust refugee from Transylvania, he lived less than half his 62 years in this area, but still managed to leave his mark on the city and on the running world at large.

Fred was among the pioneers of the New York Road Runners Club, and served as its longtime president. His arrival on the scene coincided with the back-to-the-parks movement begun during Mayor John Lindsay’s administration.

In 1970, Fred staged the first New York City Marathon in Central Park. Six years later, as a Bicentennial gift to the nation, he convinced municipal leaders to close down the city for a day so he could inaugurate the five-borough extravaganza we know today, thereby immediately catapulting it to one of the world’s premier distance running events and bringing millions in annual revenue to the New York City.

Fred was called upon as a consultant to marathon events at the Olympics and in major cities around the globe. Thanks to him, runners like Bill Rodgers, Alberto Salazar and Grete Waitz became household names in New York.

We knew Fred in a different way. In 1983, he permitted us to hold a pre-race morning prayer service for Jewish runners in the open on the parade ground at Fort Wadsworth, the staging ground for the start of the Marathon at the Staten Island end of the Verrazano Bridge. And three years later, he granted our request to move the Marathon permanently from its traditional late October date to the first Sunday in November to avoid conflict with a major Jewish holiday. He provided us with our own tent to shelter our service from possible inclement weather. Thanks to his early support, the International Minyan for NYC Marathoners has become the longest established religious service of any kind, at any major sporting event, anywhere in the world, drawing thousands of Jewish runners over the years from six continents and virtually every state in the Union.

Fred was very proud of our Minyan, one of the many features that made his event so unique in the world of road running. Those of us who remember him recall his annual visits to our Minyan on race morning even after he was diagnosed with cancer. When he stopped by in 1990, showing the effects of chemotherapy, Minyan co-founder Rabbi Jim Michaels interrupted our service so he could make a mi shebeyrach for Fred’s welfare. The photo captures that emotional moment. When the rabbi finished, we all formed a circle around Fred and began to sing, with tears streaming down our faces. Fred was visibly moved.

He used to stand in the lead car with a bull horn, encouraging the spectators in the various neighborhoods along the course to urge the runners on. (When they went through Williamsburg, he would shout to the hasidim, dee loifer darfen vasser, the runners need water.) Fred had actually run in scores of marathons around the world, but never in New York. In 1992, miraculously in remission, he decided to celebrate by running in his own Marathon for the first time. When Grete Waitz, the former world record holder from Norway and 9-time NYC champion heard that, she announced she would come out of retirement and run alongside her friend for the entire course (at a pace that was probably three times slower than she was used to). They crossed the finish line together, holding hands, which became one of the biggest sports stories of the year.

What many people missed that day, even among the media, was that Fred made his final visit to our Minyan that morning. When he showed up, he whispered that he would like to put on tefillin with us for the first time. Loving hands assisted him, and again, there was not a dry eye in our gathering.

Many of our current “minyanaires” don’t remember Fred, who passed away in 1994. Some of the younger ones don’t even recognize his name. NYRR is dedicating this year’s Marathon on November 6 to Fred’s memory on the 30th anniversary of his historic run with Grete Waitz. While present and future generations of runners here and around the world are all beneficiaries of Fred’s genius and foresight, we at the Minyan for Marathoners will always cherish our special relationship with Ephraim Fishl Lebowitz, z”l, a true mensch.

Peter A. Berkowsky is the minyan co-founder/director.

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