Shalva in New York: Running to change the world

Shalva’s diverse team included runners from cities across Israel, different ethnic backgrounds and various religious affiliations, each of them experiencing the race as. a personal achievement

 Team Shalva at the New York Marathon pose for a photograph in Times Square. (photo credit: AVISHAI FINKELSTEIN)
Team Shalva at the New York Marathon pose for a photograph in Times Square.
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

Sixty-five Israeli runners crossed the finish line of the 2022 TCS New York City Marathon on November 6 as part of the first-ever Israeli team to participate in this marathon, setting a historical precedent which had been considered unattainable until now The team ran in support of Shalva – the Israel Association for the Care and Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities, which is based in Jerusalem.

At the exclusive NYC Marathon, runners are selected by a lottery system following an application process involving rigid qualifications. The participation of runners from countries outside the US is even more restricted, with specific quotas for each country secured through designated tour operators. 

Shalva’s diverse team included runners from cities across Israel, different ethnic backgrounds and various religious affiliations, each of them experiencing the race as a personal achievement. Together, they united as representatives of the State of Israel and ambassadors for Shalva’s 2,000 children and adults with disabilities and their families

“Every day is a marathon for our Shalva families,” says Itamar Shevach, Shalva’s deputy director and CFO, who led the Shalva team and ran in the New York marathon. “With dedication and determination, our Shalva children and adults navigate challenges day in and day out, and they are an inspiration to me.” 

“With dedication and determination, our Shalva children and adults navigate challenges day in and day out, and they are an inspiration to me.”

Itamar Shevach

A marathon lifestyle every single day for the head of Israel's Shalva

A single day in Shevach’s shoes is a motivational marathon in itself. He is a lawyer with an MBA, recently completing a master’s degree in disaster management and injury prevention, with a thesis on leadership and management. Aside from his responsibilities at Shalva and as the father of four young children, Shevach serves as chairman of the National Forum for Deputy Directors of Non-Profits, volunteers as a Magen David Adom ambulance driver, and lectures at the Jerusalem College of Technology. He is a goal getter.

 ‘Pineapple Man’ Moshe Lederfien.  (credit: AVISHAI FINKELSTEIN) ‘Pineapple Man’ Moshe Lederfien. (credit: AVISHAI FINKELSTEIN)

For Shevach, running the 2022 NYC Marathon represents the pinnacle victory over his lifelong battle with obesity. “As far back as I can remember, I struggled with my weight, going on and off diets, until I made a lifestyle change three years ago and started running,” he says. “At first, after running two and a half kilometers, I needed another half hour just to catch my breath. My bones and muscles screamed in protest; but instead of giving up, I kept going. Every week, I added a little more and a little more, another few yards, another few meters.”

Shevach began slowly recruiting runners for the Shalva team less than a year ago in an effort to raise awareness and funds for the organization. Word of the developing team spread rapidly among running groups across the country. Individual runners were inspired by the concept that by taking on a fundraising goal for Shalva, the encouragement of family and friends that they were receiving for their sport could be translated into support for others as well. However, as the date of the marathon drew closer, the runners realized that, in a sense, the tables had turned: Running for Shalva had conversely become a support to them. Through the grueling training periods and even in the most difficult moments of the marathon itself, knowing that their race was helping the Shalva children and families had become one of their primary motivations.

“The thought of running a marathon first came to me when I was lying in bed recovering from a bone marrow transplant,” reflected Shalva runner Ayala Hartman, who recently recovered from a life-threatening case of aplastic anemia. “I was not able to walk or function independently, and I understood that I needed a tangible goal in order to recuperate and overcome this.” Hartman and her friend Ahava Azan began with short walks, eventually a 10K, a half marathon two years ago, and they both crossed the finish line of their first full marathon this November in New York with Shalva.

While the 2022 Shalva running team included many first-timers like Shevach, Hartman and Azan, the majority of the group had run marathons previously. The team even included some seasoned marathon runners like Moshe Lederfien, the iconic “Pineapple Man.” Lederfien has run several marathons in countries around the globe, scouted and celebrated by the crowds for running the full marathon with a pineapple on his head. Once he ran a marathon while balancing a plant on his head, and another time a bottle of wine. However, his preferred object is a pineapple, which he first adopted at the Vienna City Marathon in 2017, purchased from a local fruit vendor. Lederfien does not believe that he has a particular talent that enables him to run marathons while balancing objects on his head, other than faith and perhaps genetics, as he fondly remembers his grandmother often carrying things on her head.

“The purpose of the pineapple is essentially to generate positive, encouraging responses from the observers,” explains Lederfien. “I’m on a mission to make the world a more balanced, positive place – and this is the pineapple.” 

Lederfien and his pineapple were featured in a New York Times special report on unique outfits of NYC Marathon runners this year. Lederfien, who has been running marathons since he was 53, will soon celebrate his 70th birthday. However, he still carries his traumatic experiences as a young Israeli soldier in the Yom Kippur War. “Running marathons is part of my ongoing healing as a war veteran with PTSD,” he says. “It proves to me and to others that anything is possible – to lift the skies as high as possible.”

Each runner brings his/her own inspiring story to the track. The Shalva team trained together, reached their fundraising targets and navigated bureaucratic hurdles throughout the past several months. Eventually, they raced through New York City’s five boroughs, proudly wearing their shirts printed with the team name and an Israeli flag on the arm. 

“For me, the most important and inspiring thing was that every one of our runners, without exception, completed the full marathon successfully, while over 10,000 runners stopped or became injured on the way due to the harsh conditions. The athletes unanimously expressed that even when the going got tough, they’d remember that they were running for a cause – to benefit Shalva – and the thought of Shalva’s children waiting for them back in Israel empowered them with the strength to carry on,” says Shevach.

Transforming challenges into personal growth as a catalyst for helping the greater good is deeply rooted in the DNA of the Shalva organization. Kalman and Malki Samuels, whose son Yossi was rendered blind and deaf among other disabilities during his infancy, founded Shalva in 1990 as a fulfillment of a personal promise to help other children and families in similar situations. What began as an afternoon program for six local children is today an internationally recognized leader in the field of disability care and inclusion that provides direct-care services to over 2,000 individuals with disabilities and their families. Shalva’s programs cater to every age and stage of development, from infancy through adulthood. The programs include early intervention therapies; educational frameworks; rehabilitative-recreational programming; respite and family support; and employment and independent living in the community.

The Shalva National Center in Jerusalem is one of the leading centers for disability care and inclusion in the world. In addition to catering to its thousands of beneficiaries, Shalva is visited annually by approximately 180,000 people from the broader community and dignitaries from Israel and abroad who come to learn about the organization’s pioneering support models and to experience inclusion firsthand. Shalva relies significantly on private donations in order to provide optimal, holistic care that has proven to be truly transformative in inspiring hope and changing lives. 

The fundraising initiatives of the individual runners, coupled with the support of the team’s headline sponsors Saucony and ISSTA Sport, collectively raised NIS 1.5 million to support Shalva’s rehabilitative programs. “Thanks to Team Shalva, we are able to come full circle and achieve a life goal of participating in our first marathon, all the while supporting an incredible organization that has changed the lives of so many people in Israel,” says Hartman.

November 6 was Shalva’s first appearance in the New York Marathon; however, the organization’s team has been a long-time staple of the annual Jerusalem Marathon. In 2009, Team Shalva initiated Israel’s first Community Run, a disability accessible track in the Jerusalem Marathon. Shalva has the largest team in the Jerusalem Marathon, which includes hundreds of children with disabilities and their families who are escorted by Shalva’s volunteers, supporting IDF army units, police and fire fighting brigades, and celebrity athletes. 

Hundreds of Team Shalva runners come from the US, the UK and Canada. Several school groups participate in the marathon’s various tracks in support of Shalva. In years past, Shalva also led a number of other charity sporting challenges, such as cross-country hikes in Israel and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

“Running the New York City Marathon was a double victory. It helped me to overcome my struggle with obesity and to assemble a fabulous team of athletes who ran to benefit Shalva’s children with disabilities,” says Shevach. “Next year, Shalva’s team is registered with New York Road Runners as an officially recognized charity partner of the 2023 TCS New York City Marathon. We look forward to many more runners joining us.” ■