Jerusalem Marathon awakens Dallas man’s desire to lead team back for next race
By Aaron Greenberg
Special to the TJP
Walking through the streets of Jerusalem tends to be inspiring enough. But when Avi Mitzner ran in the Jerusalem Marathon earlier this year on a team helping individuals with disabilities, it awakened something in him. Now Mitzner’s actively recruiting people from the Metroplex to join him for the 2018 event.
“I try to appeal to people, come and conquer a challenge in the most wonderful place for the most wonderful cause,” Mitzner said.
Last year, Mitzner’s friend, Rabbi Erez Sherman of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, was leading a team for Shalva, an Israeli organization helping children with disabilities and special needs.
“I looked into it and it seemed like a great cause to run for,” Mitzner said.
Running the race was amazing, Mitzner said, but he discovered that being part of Team Shalva made it even more special. He had a chance not just to meet the young people the organization helps, but to spend quality time together.
“The night before the marathon, they take all of Team Shalva to the Shalva facility and give you a tour and have some presentations, including the Shalva band made up of the children,” he said. “They play a few songs and then you have your pre-race carbohydrate-loading meal there. It’s a first-class experience.”
Shalva actually helped transform the race. Fran Cohen, the Team Shalva race director, said the event had been a half-marathon or 10K, but her daughter pushed the municipality to change it. Cohen was one of the 17 international runners in that first race. There are now hundreds who participate.
Their team has grown as well.
“It grew from word-of-mouth because it’s so well organized,” she said. “People came to see where their money was going to and were so impressed with what the money does. It’s fundraising for an organization in Israel, they get to Israel, they see the facility and what is being done, and it is a win-win.
“Whether you train for a marathon or 10K, you have to train. It gives meaning to all that training. You wake up in the morning and say ‘I’m running for me, but also something bigger and better and making my running mean something.’ Then when you get to Israel and see the meaning of it all, it is phenomenal.”
Taking place March 9 next year, the race will include the full marathon, a half-marathon, a 10K and 5K. Shalva also created an 800-meter community run for those with disabilities.
Unfortunately for Mitzner, he will have to undergo foot surgery. While he won’t be able to run, he still plans on fundraising and attending to help out.
As a member of the Sinai Temple contingent of Team Shalva, Mitzner said he was part of a very diverse group, and that brought interesting new ways to view the Holy Land.
A security guard for the congregation had converted earlier in the year and became a bar mitzvah at the Kotel on Shabbat afternoon.
The heart of the trip is three days with Shalva. Team members arrive Thursday and get a tour of the massive Shalva National Center.
“They get a tour of the Shalva center, then visit the Shalva café, serviced by alumni,” Cohen said. “After they visit the café, there’s also the gift shop.”
The runners will check out the 450-seat auditorium and hear the Shalva band, which recently went on an international tour. After the race, there’s the 800-meter run, which Cohen said many consider the highlight of their trip. A victory party follows, and Shabbat is marked with Friday night services and an inspirational speaker, Shabbat lunch and Havdalah. Student groups tour the Old City and have a closing ceremony, which adults can join, at the Western Wall.
The full and half marathons, as well as the 10K, go into the Old City through the Jaffa Gate.
Mitzner’s first marathon was here in Dallas, in 2006, and he has done about 25 in total. But running in Jerusalem is like nothing else he’s done.
“The Jerusalem Marathon was the most difficult marathon I’ve ever done,” Mitzner said. “It’s very hilly, and very challenging. Toward the end, my legs were just seizing up on me. They weren’t used to those kinds of hills. Here in Dallas, we don’t have hills.”
Jordana Bernstein, who will also be running with Team Shalva, said that part of her training has also been a challenge.
“As much as I can possibly train here, it’s probably not going to prepare me enough for the hills of Jerusalem, but I feel just the adrenaline from being in the middle of Jerusalem and the people cheering will get me through the whole thing,” she said.
For Bernstein, it’ll also be a chance to reconnect with her 18-year-old daughter, who made aliyah this month. They will be doing the half-marathon together.
That’s just another reason why running in Jerusalem is like nowhere else. It’s where Jews come together.
“It’s Jerusalem, right? As Jews, it’s our holiest city, and to be able to go and run through the holy city, how special is that?” Mitzner said.
His team is through Shearith Israel, but any members of the community are welcome.
“There’s a very diverse group from Dallas going, and we’re running for Shearith Israel, but there’s Conservative, Orthodox, Traditional Jews all running for Israel as a team,” Bernstein said. “It’s a nice way our community can come together to support Israel.”
Team members need to raise $3,400, and while it’s no small amount, it comes with quite a few benefits, Mitzner said.
“Once you reach that level, you get round-trip airfare from Dallas to Israel, you get three nights at the Crowne Plaza in Jerusalem,” he said. “You get the pre-race visit to Shalva and the pre-race pasta party that they have. You get a party for Team Shalva when you finish the race. You get a Shabbaton at the Crowne Plaza after the race. And you get your marathon entry as well.”
Best of all, the entire amount raised goes directly to Shalva’s work.
“What this project does besides directly providing for the services, it creates tremendous awareness of the organization and persons with disabilities, raising hope, love and dignity for them and for a more inclusive society,” Cohen said.
That’s what drew Bernstein, the early childhood director at Akiba Academy.
“I had the desire to run the marathon in Jerusalem this year and started researching organizations involved,” she said. “It seemed like the one I most wanted to run for because I have devoted my life to Jewish children and families, and because they help support children and families in Israel with special needs.”
Mitzner’s team webpage is www.run4shalva.org/my/avimitz. More information about the race can be found at run4shalva.org or Jerusalem-marathon.org. Shalva can be found at shalva.org/new.