Amid COVID-19, virtual treadmill brings Jerusalem to runners worldwide

Runs already filmed include through the city center, Nahlaot, “from Ramat Rachel to Rachel’s Tomb,” around the Old City walls, through the Kidron Valley and around Ein Karem.

RUNNING AROUND the Knesset area (photo credit: RUNNING AROUND JERUSALEM)
RUNNING AROUND the Knesset area
(photo credit: RUNNING AROUND JERUSALEM)
After COVID-19 devastated the travel industry, most Israelis in tourism found themselves without work, and grounded travelers worldwide have been left yearning to visit Jerusalem. Now, three Jerusalem-based travel professionals whose livelihoods were upended by the pandemic have channeled their energies – both mental and physical – into bringing Jerusalem to her fans, especially runners, throughout the world via a unique virtual treadmill program called Running Around Jerusalem (RAJ).
RAJ, a passion project for creators Michael (Matityahu) Glassman, Daniel Kutscher, and Phillip GordonLavine, is a series of free 30-minute YouTube videos that take viewers on running tours of an eclectic mix of Jerusalem neighborhoods. Runners who are missing Jerusalem due to travel limitations or quarantines can now simulate running through Jerusalem on their treadmills, but anyone missing the Holy City can watch, learn and enjoy Running Around Jerusalem.
In each episode, the camera follows Glassman and Kutscher while they run a five-kilometer course as Glassman gives Kutscher, and the viewer along with him, an informative and entertaining historical running tour of each area. As Glassman states, “We want those running along with us to feel like they are personally running through the streets of Jerusalem with two running buddies while learning about Jerusalem’s history, culture and people.”
RAJ is the brainchild of Glassman, a 39-year-old tour guide and educator who lives in Jerusalem’s Armon Hanatziv neighborhood, who found a way to dovetail his skills as a tour guide with his love for Jerusalem and a newfound passion for running.
ORIGINALLY FROM Atlanta, Georgia, Glassman worked for AIPAC in Washington DC before making aliyah in 2010 to a Jerusalem absorption center where he spotted an advertisement seeking tour guides for the City of David. Armed with degrees in classical studies and ancient history, Glassman reinvented himself and began guiding for the City of David and ultimately became a licensed tour guide.
Toward the end of 2016, the City of David offered to cover entrance fees for staff who wanted to run the Jerusalem Marathon. Glassman, who had only dabbled in running, accepted the challenge; the catch was the marathon was just three months away. Says Glassman, “I asked a friend who is a runner if I could pull it off. He replied, ‘It’s possible, but it will be painful,’ and he was right,” but during the intense training, “something clicked, and I got the bug.” After successfully finishing the Jerusalem Marathon in March 2017, Glassman ran marathons in Athens that November and in Linz, Austria in April 2018 where he proudly finished in under three hours.
Glassman then started teaching full time at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI) program for students from abroad, where Glassman had been a student himself. Because the AMHSI curriculum had students touring all over Israel, the position was a perfect fit for Glassman’s skill set but left little time for other guiding or marathon training.
Glassman did undertake one additional project during that time when he partnered with Ryan and Sara Hall, highly decorated Christian marathon runners, to create a Jerusalem Marathon Pilgrimage tour for the 2020 marathon. Glassman planned to guide Christian runners on off-the-beaten-path tours interspersed with running workshops, culminating in a run in the March 2020 marathon.
But then COVID-19 hit. Not only was the marathon canceled, but Glassman’s students at AMHSI returned home and after the semester of teaching online ended, Glassman found himself without work.
One day, he was speaking with a cousin who lives in the States who told Glassman that he had been doing treadmill runs with an iFit, a virtual treadmill program that allows the user to simulate running in different cities around the world. The cousin suggested, “You should do something like this for Israel.” This piqued Glassman’s interest and he started researching virtual treadmill programs.
GLASSMAN DISCOVERED that existing programs required proprietary equipment and that programs either provided workouts with virtual scenery without commentary or virtual tours that were not workouts. Glassman thought, “Why not do a workout that is also a guided tour?”
Glassman invested in a GoPro camera and enlisted the help of two friends who had also been working in the hard-hit travel industry. Kutscher, who had made aliyah from London 15 years ago, is an avid runner who had been working for a tour operator. GordonLavine, Glassman’s neighbor and fellow tour guide who made aliyah in 2002, founded Jerusalem Sunrise Cycling tours where he conducted daybreak bicycle tours through pre-COVID Jerusalem. The three brainstormed and experimented and Running Around Jerusalem took shape.
The team discovered that the episodes worked best with GordonLavine on a bike, filming behind the running Glassman and Kutscher, which gives treadmill viewers the feeling that they are running with the duo. They also found that banter between Glassman and Kutscher was more entertaining than following Glassman alone as it creates a sense of camaraderie. Kutscher says, “I basically facilitate the conversation. My role is to play the questioning child at the Seder: Why is that building over there? What is this we are running by? We are two guys who really love running and really love Israel and we don’t want it to be too dry.”
Each episode takes careful planning. After the team comes up with a list of favorite Jerusalem routes, Glassman and GordonLavine consult guidebooks and other source material to bring Jerusalem to life. Glassman says, “If we want to focus on Jesus’s triumphal entry to Jerusalem, or places connected to King David, or Israel’s reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, then we would follow those routes.” They then plan a 5k route, “always keeping in mind that we want something visually compelling and with a good story, as well as with an eye towards taking people through parts of Jerusalem they might not otherwise have the opportunity to explore.”
Glassman says he then goes on at least one trial run, usually with Kutscher, “looking for potential stumbling blocks and challenges, or unexpected opportunities, working out what we want to talk about during each section.” Finally, the trio meet up to film, usually right after sunrise, as lighter traffic makes it easier for the runners and the bike to navigate city streets.
“When we film, we film the whole route. We have certain edit points where we will stop, check that the sound and footage are good, and then keep going. But we don’t cut out sections of the route. We want to make sure those running with us get the full experience.”
 Each member of the trio has his part to play. As the runners in front of the camera, Glassman guides and Kutscher moves the story along and pulls it together, but the way GordonLavine “captures the footage can make or break the video,” says Glassman. “He has to constantly monitor how far he is from us, the angles, and navigate turns and terrain changes without jolting the camera too much, so his role is super important.”
Even in the early morning hours, filming can be harrowing and fraught with mishaps and near misses. Says Glassman, “We once filmed a whole run, then when I got back home and checked the footage, I noticed that the sound didn’t record at all. So we had to do the whole thing again. And then there was the time I had forgotten the cable that connects the microphone receiver to the camera, so we had to punt on filming that day.
GordonLavine has to navigate around speeding buses and terrain like steep stairways in the Old City or narrow passages through Machane Yehuda, all on a bike, no easy feat.
SNEAKERS TO the pavement at the Jerusalem shuk. (Photo credit: Running Around Jerusalem)SNEAKERS TO the pavement at the Jerusalem shuk. (Photo credit: Running Around Jerusalem)
AS OF now, the RAJ team has filmed nine episodes, including runs through the city center, Nahlaot, “from Ramat Rachel to Rachel’s Tomb,” around the Old City walls, through the Kidron Valley and around Ein Karem. The videos have been posted by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, JNF and Arutz 7 and will be shared by JCCs across North America in the coming weeks. They are planning to venture out of Jerusalem, including a run in the Modi’in area to film the path of the Maccabees in time for Hanukkah.
As for the future, the team hopes to continue shooting RAJ in and beyond Jerusalem and groups or individuals can hire them to film specific content episodes. Glassman plans to resume teaching at AMHSI, guiding and is working on a rescheduled Jerusalem Marathon Pilgrimage tour. Kutcher has pivoted; he is studying digital marketing, working in the Amazon sales industry, and doing some personal training. GordonLavine hopes that post-pandemic travelers will be excited to explore new places and that “Jerusalem Sunrise Cycling Tours will be just the thing they will be looking for.” He says that in the meantime, “what really makes me proud is that with [RAJ] I am still able to share this country that I love with people all over the world.”
Asked to share his favorite episode, Glassman says he doesn’t yet have one but appreciates little moments in each, like running through quaint Ein Karem and its surrounding hills or through “the Kidron Valley, because it meant I got to run up to Mt. Scopus just as dawn was breaking over the Judean Desert, and then through some beautiful trails where I know for sure King David would have walked… One of the things I love about this initiative is that the runs are so different and each gives me a different pleasure.”
 Kutscher’s favorite is the run around the circumference of the Old City.
“I had actually never done the route before we did the test run and it was really enjoyable. It’s actually quite a small area, but the scenery changes so rapidly. One minute you’re near shops and the next you’re at an old Muslim cemetery... In this tiny area the whole world changes around you. It showcases Jerusalem in a nutshell.”
For GordonLavine, “My favorite tour is always the next one we are going to do because I am always looking forward to going out in the morning and riding behind these guys.“
Though born out of the trying pandemic experience, Glassman is grateful for this new venture.
“I’m constantly learning new things about Jerusalem. One of the highlights for me was getting the chance to meet Shoshana Karbasi from ‘The Oldest House in Ein Kerem.’ She told amazing stories; her jam was out-of-this-world amazing; and there was a moment when she said something that really resonated with me and with the whole running aspect of my life. She said, ‘Sometimes in life we don’t choose the road we take; the road chooses us. And we just have to go with it and see where it takes us.’
“In many ways, I think that this insight sums up our Running Around Jerusalem initiative.”
To watch Running Around Jerusalem, visit www.runningaroundjerusalem.com.
For more information on future tours or the Jerusalem Marathon Pilgrimage, visit www.israelexplorer.com
For Jerusalem Sunrise Cycling tour information, visit: www.jerusalemsunrisecycling.com.