A run for your money

The Jerusalem Marathon has inspired many people to compete for a cause, raising thousands of shekels while training for their races.

March 24, 2011 21:39

Jerusalem 520. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

Long-distance running is a punishing sport. There’s no team to cheer you on, no coach pushing you to do better, no uniforms to give you a sense of solidarity. As a way to combat this isolation, many longdistance runners use their races as an opportunity to raise money for charities and causes they support, giving them extra motivation to push through the point where they want to give up.

This concept of using sports as a fundraising tool is only starting to catch on in Israel. As 10,000 runners descend on Jerusalem on March 25 for the first annual International Jerusalem Marathon, a small percentage of them will be running for a cause. But the number is expected to grow exponentially.

Here are the stories of six runners and the reasons they’re running.


International marathons are deeply intertwined with charities and fund-raising. Most prestigious international marathons are open only to runners who have previously run a certain time in another marathon or to recreational runners who join a “charity team” and commit to raising thousands of dollars for their chosen charity. The London Marathon, whose official charity this year is Oxfam, has used this model to raise £500 million for charity since 1981.

This kind of international fund-raising is most easily accomplished through personal fund-raising websites, which can instantly be shared with friends and family around the world. But until recently, Israel has lacked this kind of technological platform. IsraelGives (YisraelToremet in Hebrew), a company that acts as a portal for Americans and Israelis to donate to 700 Israeli nonprofit organizations, is starting to launch personal fund-raising options based on this model.

In the months before the Jerusalem Marathon, “we were approached by a number of organizations and people who are very inspired that Jerusalem is the holy capital city and wanted to do something as a result,” says IsraelGives founder Yonatan Ben-Dor, an immigrant from Montreal.

“Native-born Israelis approached us first, even though they don’t come from a culture of sporting events being a fundraiser,” he says.

IsraelGives set up a personal website for each runner who approached them, which included a photo, short explanation of why they’re running, and an opportunity to make a tax-deductible donation of any amount via credit card.

IsraelGives takes a commission of 2.5 percent, in addition to the same amount as a credit card fee; the remaining 95% goes to the chosen charity.

“We’ve had hundreds of donations coming in for these few [marathon] fund-raisers,” in the past few weeks, Ben- Dor says. “It was a tremendous surprise for me because I didn’t realize how quickly Israelis would respond.”

IsraelGives, which was launched in July 2009, has set up individual fund-raising pages for people celebrating lifecycle events such as bar mitzvas or weddings. Based on the recent success of the Jerusalem Marathon, IsraelGives will be unveiling a more accessible platform for individual fund-raisers in May during a bicycle ride called “Wheels of Hope” with the Etgarim charity, which creates opportunities for people with disabilities to take part in outdoor adventures and races.

“It’s a shame that sporting events and NGOs don’t try to use this opportunity which is so common abroad,” says Ben-Dor. “It’s slowly starting, but there’s no reason it can’t flourish so vibrantly here in Israel the way it does abroad.”

Ben-Dor notes that part of the hesitation is cultural.

“Israeli charities don’t try to form partnerships with supporters the same way other countries do,” he says.

The personal fund-raising platform is powerful because it uses supporters not just as financial donors, but it turns them into fund-raisers themselves or, as Ben-Dor calls them, financial ambassadors. “Peer-to-peer fund-raising is definitely the next level of online fund-raising,” he says.

Ben-Dor says he tried to partner with the municipality to encourage more runners to run for charity but that they weren’t able to organize it in time. He hopes to work together with the municipality for future marathons.

But personal fund-raising isn’t the only way that the Jerusalem Marathon will raise money for charity. In addition to the marathon, half marathon, and 10K races for the general public, there is a 4.2 km. fun race to benefit the Israel Cancer Society and a 400 m. dash for the Children of Shalva, an organization that supports children with special needs. – Melanie Lidman

The writer is running her first marathon in honor of the Michael Levin Lone Soldier Center.

AGE: 51

When five-time marathoner Mayor Nir Barkat crossed the finish line at his most recent marathon, in New York, in the fall of 2009, he made an announcement: Jerusalem would host its own race. It took 18 months and a “marathon” effort of planning, choosing the route and marketing the event overseas to attract runners from abroad and convincing everyone he could that a marathon would help Jerusalem’s image abroad.

“When you do a marathon in a city, you come with all your family and friends, but that’s just part of it… the city enters into your soul,” Barkat told In Jerusalem on a training run a few weeks before race day. “You have tens of thousands of people running, you have hundreds of thousands of people cheering. The cheering and the running together, you get the best out of the city they’re in.”

Barkat says that because of his work schedule, he doesn’t have time to run the eight to 10 hours a week required for the full marathon. But he runs five kilometers from his home in Beit Hakerem to Kikar Safra a few times a week, as well as longer runs on the weekend.

The marathon, along with other cultural events like the Light Festival, the Opera Festival and weekly summer concerts, are part of the overarching plan for a “cultural revival” of the city, he says. “A marathon isn’t a race against something; marathons are for something, and this marathon is sharing Jerusalem with people of the world,” he says. “You see many people who run for a cause.

Marathons are the best way to exploit something you feel deeply about. For me, it’s really putting Jerusalem on a pedestal and opening it up and showing it to people. It’s a great combination for people who want to do good for their body and their soul, run for a cause and enjoy a city. It’s like triple dipping in one activity.”

AGE: 24

The Jerusalem Marathon is part of Mayor Nir Barkat’s vision for the city as a young, vibrant cultural city with plenty of opportunities to convince students not to flee the capital for better jobs and a more active social life in Tel Aviv. Student activist Bar Peleg, a second-year sociology and business management student at the Hebrew University, latched onto the marathon as a tool to help achieve that goal.

“The first Jerusalem Marathon is so important for a young, dynamic, wanna-be city,” she says. “But all the running groups here are for people in their 40s.”

So Peleg started a running group for Hebrew University students called Someone to Run With, the name of the popular David Grossman novel.

Fifty students running various lengths signed up to train together. In addition to organized runs, the students use the group to find partners for individual runs and keep up the motivation during training, as well as meeting like-minded people.

After hatching the idea of a student group for the marathon in November, she tried to implement an educational aspect by asking the runners to volunteer for four hours in local schools. “We want to enroll the community in this so the marathon is not just for runners but for everyone,” she says.

Students were asked to teach four lessons about the marathon at different schools, including famous marathons, the history of the marathon and the importance of Jerusalem’s marathon for the city, says Peleg. This being the first year, the initiative took a while to get started. About half the Someone to Run With members volunteered their time, and the children they worked with will be some of the hundreds of school-aged volunteers handing out water and cheering the runners on race day.

The 50 students also tried their hand at fund-raising, choosing three charities. After scouring the Internet for a program that would let them fundraise individually, Peleg contacted IsraelGives, which eventually set up personal fund-raising pages for the entire group. The group raised NIS 20,000 in the three weeks before the marathon.

“People that run long distances, they want everyone to know, and here you have a way to tell the world about it without being cocky,” she says.

Since the framework is already in place for next year’s marathon, she has big dreams: sponsorships, uniforms, trainers, expanding to all the city’s universities and colleges. Which is why it was such a disappointment when a nagging pain in her leg turned out to be a stress fracture from training too hard, and a doctor ordered her not to run. Peleg says it will be frustrating to watch from the sidelines and not be running with the group she founded, but she’s already looking forward to next year.

“We’ll rebuild it now to the next marathon,” she says. “We can build a better team with an even better structure and group.”

AGE: 19

Sixty runners are running with Team Chai Lifeline Israel, which provides assistance for sick children and their families. They have raised $75,000 through personal fund-raising pages similar to IsraelGives. Team Lifeline’s American branch, which runs the Miami half marathon every year, fields around 350 runners, who raise more than $1 million for Camp Simcha, the organization’s camp for sick children.

When at age 14 Pia Levine was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease, she was told to hide her sickness to minimize the risk of ruining her chances for a good shidduch (match). Even worse than missing long periods of school, extended hospital stays and the stress of being a sick teenager was the sense of isolation.

When she was invited to Camp Simcha, that feeling of isolation vanished.

“It made me forget I was sick and couldn’t go to school; they were really amazing,” she recalls of her first summer.

Since then, she has volunteered for the organization in America and in its Israel branch, offering to drive children to medical appointments and visiting kids in the hospital. She tried to go back as a counselor after her first summer but had a flare-up and attended as a camper instead.

After high school, Levine came to Israel for seminary at Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalayim but within a few weeks got sick again and had to go back to New Jersey. Her father, who was ill at the time with cancer, died six months after Levine returned to America. “It was all for the best because I got to spend those last six months with him,” she says. Chai Lifeline also helped the family during her father’s illness, bringing them Shabbat meals and helping with Levine’s younger siblings.

She came back to Israel to try seminary again this year. Though she has never run any races prior to this one, she jumped at the chance to run the half marathon as a way to give back to the organization that has done so much for her family.

“It’s a really good way to raise money for them because in Israel they don’t have funding. In America they have big sponsors, but here they need donors for each event,” she notes.

She says she’s already “fairly athletic” and just increased her runs and gym visits in order to train.

“I’m doing this for everyone who’s sick and doesn’t think they can hang in much longer, but you just push to the end because you can do it,” she says. “And I’m running for my father’s memory because he taught me strength.”

AGE: 51

Tami Gross started running marathons as a present to herself before her 50th birthday. “I have four kids, and now it’s time to do something for me,” she says. So she started training for a half marathon.

Then she did another. And another. After five half marathons, she heard about the Jerusalem half marathon and knew she wanted to run it. But while she loved running for herself, Gross knew she wanted to do this marathon for a cause.

She worked for years with Harriet Levin, the mother of Michael Levin, a paratrooper who was killed in the Second Lebanon War in 2006. In the aftermath of his death, his parents and Israeli friends created an organization to help other “lone soldiers,” IDF soldiers who have no family in Israel.

“It was so important to do a Jerusalem marathon for Michael because he loved Jerusalem,” says Gross. “What better way to bring awareness to his fund than by running through a city he loved?” Her fund-raising really took off when Harriet Levin joined the effort. When Gross thinks of how many people are supporting her run, “I get choked up and I get goosebumps,” she says.

And there’s the added benefit of knowing that her support of the Lone Soldier Center will come full circle when her son makes aliya and enters the army this fall.

“In the past when I’ve done [the races], I did them all for me as a personal goal that I wanted to reach,” she says. “But this one, especially because of its being in Israel, I have the added incentive. I’m not doing it for me; this time I’m doing it for Michael,” she explains. “I believe in my heart he’ll be up there watching and pushing me up the hills.”

AGE: 47

During the Dublin Marathon in 2009, there was one group of runners that made a big impression on Muli Cohen, who was running his first marathon. It was a group not running their fastest but running together for a charity and taking turns pushing a man in a wheelchair for the entire duration of the course.

The wheels started turning for Cohen, a 20-plus year volunteer at Jerusalem’s Beit Hagalgalim, an organization that provides social programs and support for severely disabled children and adults. When he decided to run the Jerusalem Marathon, he told Beit Hagalgalim that he wanted to use it as a fund-raiser for the organization. They found the site IsraelGives, which opened a fund-raising page for them. Beit Hagalgalim found three other runners and convinced them to join the effort. So far the group, which includes two half marathoners in addition to Cohen, will be running a total of 105 km. and are hoping to raise NIS 1,000 per kilometer.

Cohen, who grew up in Jerusalem and has run two half marathons in previous years, knows the hills of Jerusalem well and expects his fund-raising work to help give him extra motivation. “It will help. It will definitely give me a little extra commitment in the harder parts, knowing there are other reasons to run the marathon above my own personal reasons,” he says.

He hopes one day the charity aspect of the Jerusalem Marathon will be such that perhaps Beit Hagalgalim can field a team of runners to push someone in a wheelchair for the course. But after thinking about the route, he reconsiders: “Dublin was really flat,” he laughs.

AGE: 33 AND 34

There are only 600 people in the world with familial dysanomia, a genetic disease that one in 30 Ashkenazi Jews carries in their genes. Sara and Benjamin’s oldest son, Dovi, 13, is one of them, and one of only three people with FD in the state of Illinois. The debilitating disease means that the autonomic nervous system has not developed fully, meaning that Dovi requires a feeding tube and spends most of his time in a wheelchair.

But at Camp Simcha, there are 40 kids with FD.

“He’s made amazing friends at camp, which gives him a sense of belonging that we, as his parents, can’t give him,” says Sara Porush.

Chai Lifeline in America has a developed fundraising program connected to the Miami Marathon, run every year in January. “I was never a runner before I started running for Chai Lifeline; I was more apt to be cheering on the sidelines,” says Porush, who has done four half marathons for Chai Lifeline. “I really run because of Chai Lifeline. It’s not like I was a runner who found a good cause; the cause found me. It’s an amazing motivation for me.”

Porush says she and her husband jumped at the chance to run the first Jerusalem Marathon, to combine their passion for fund-raising for Chai Lifeline with a chance to run in Israel, where they haven’t visited in 10 years.

In addition to the excitement of running in Jerusalem, Porush says that her charity would give her the extra motivation to power up Jerusalem’s hills. “I’ll be thinking about my son,” she says.

“This year I’m not only running in honor of my son Dovi but all the kids in his cabin and all the counselors who have changed our lives.”

Related Content