Comment: Born to run

Yeshiva students train hard – and build character – to run in Jerusalem’s first marathon.

Marathon runners 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Marathon runners 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
“I’m about to go on a 12- mile run,” announced Joe Benun on a recent Wednesday evening. “Anyone want to come with me?” Five months ago, no one in Yeshivat Eretz Hatzvi would have agreed to join Joe, a lifelong competitive runner and Iron Man veteran.
A lot has changed since October.
Led by Joe, seven students now plan to run the first-annual Jerusalem marathon, and 18 will run the half-marathon as members of “Team Tzvi,” named after their yeshiva.
Most of the runners – all of whom are younger than 19 years old – have never been part of a cross-country or track team before. In fact, very few of them have any previous running experience at all.
“This is my first time being part of a real team,” said Ben Fisher of Boston, Massachusetts.
Joe arrived in Israel in late August knowing he would run the 26.2-mile race in March.
“When I got to yeshiva and saw some kids exercising, I thought it would be great to get a lot of kids involved in serious running,” he said.
What started out as a small group seeking a unique experience in a foreign country quickly ballooned into something much bigger: a major fundraiser.
Team Tzvi partnered up with Tikvot, an Israeli organization that helps amputees and people with other physical disabilities participate in athletic activities.
“This was the perfect charity,” Joe said. “It combines sports and Israel – two causes we can really relate to.”
Tikvot is thrilled with the fundraising effort.
“Team Tzvi epitomizes the phrase ‘healthy mind in a healthy body,’” said Simone Farbstein, Tikvot’s director.
“Taking a year off to study, and showing support for an organization that takes care of Israeli soldiers is amazing.”
Team Tzvi had the opportunity to meet Ms. Farbstein and Eitan Hermon – a former soldier who was wounded in 2006 – during the Second Lebanon War when his tank was hit by a road side bomb.
Before his injury, Eitan was a competitive runner, and he vowed – as he was being carried away on a stretcher – that he would run another marathon. He currently holds the second-fastest time for an amputee in the world.
The marathon team is raising money to equip Eitan with a prosthetic racing leg in anticipation of his pursuit of the world record in the Rotterdam Marathon, in the Netherlands this April.
On race day, they will wear green jerseys with a silhouette on the front of a deer (“tzvi,” in Hebrew). The back of the shirts say: “One soldier’s dream, one annual marathon.”
“Our organization is extremely proud to welcome them into the Tikvot family,” said Rocky Muravitz, chairman of Tikvot.
Originally, Joe assumed that everyone would run the full marathon, but balancing running with a yeshiva lifestyle – 10-hour days studying Talmud, Tanakh (Bible), philosophy, Hebrew, and Zionism – proved difficult.
“I love the idea of running the marathon for charity,” said Ethan Stein of Manhattan, New York. “But the days are long, and I’m often too tired to put in the time for a full workout.”
The yeshiva was a bit concerned at first about the enormous time commitment needed to properly train – coupled with the rigorous Judaic studies curriculum.
In reality, Team Tzvi has gone above and beyond expectations.
“We are proud of them,” said Rav Yehuda Susman, rosh yeshiva at Eretz Hatzvi. “They came to Israel to learn Torah.
And they have done that, and more.”
In his opinion, the marathon training is a reflection of their learning efforts.
“They engage the outside world charged with the values and self-discipline imbibed in the beit midrash.”
Another obstacle impeding progress is a plethora of minor injuries: shin splints, strained muscles and other aches and pains typical among runners.
Training is difficult for the boys from Eretz Hatzvi. It is even harder for Sam Fisher, a student in Yeshivat Orayta in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Ben heard about the marathon through members of Team Tzvi and was drawn to the fact that he would be running for a good cause.
“It’s hard to be motivated when I run alone,” said Ben.
“The combination of knowing I’m running for a charity and running where my ancestors walked thousands of years ago is very inspirational. It’s what gets me through the long runs.”
Runners from Eretz Hatzvi share the same sentiments.
They connect to their Jewish heritage in the classroom and on tiyulim (field trips) and perform community service – but they want to maximize their Israel experience.
“It helps you become a part of the Israeli culture,” said Avinoam Baral, a Team Tzvi member from Seattle, Washington.
Sam Liebmann, of Great Neck, New York, said historical perspective and camaraderie is the draw for him.
“I pass by 2,500 years of history – and my friends from other Israel programs – all on the same runs,” he said.
Sam thinks that training in Jerusalem has benefitted the boys of Team Tzvi – both physically and as Jews.
“Running in the Holy City is a testament to our survival as Jews; we are stronger than ever,” he said.
Joe believes that the group dynamic will have a long-lasting effect.
“I want to make people realize that in the future they can try things they never thought was possible,” he said.
Participant Don Greenberg spoke of what keeps him motivated to train.
“On one of my first runs, I stopped midway, panting,” Don said. “I turned to the guy I was running with and asked why we were doing this. He said, ‘to say we did.’ We’re really doing something special here.”
Joe concurred in a message to the whole team. He wrote to his recruits in an email: “We’re going to remember this for our whole lives.”
To make a tax-deductible donation to Team Tzvi, please e-mail