Not running on empty

This former US postal courier’s unfailing spirit energizes everyone from athletes to the betrothed.

Yehuda Berren with Menachem Kashanian, a volunteer for Yachad, an organization that strives to include the disabled in Jewish communal life. (photo credit: LISA GALINSKY)
Yehuda Berren with Menachem Kashanian, a volunteer for Yachad, an organization that strives to include the disabled in Jewish communal life.
(photo credit: LISA GALINSKY)
The unofficial motto of the US Postal Service is “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” For 27 years, that motto kept Yehuda (then Jerry) Berren faithfully delivering mail in the Boston area.
Now that he’s a retiree transplanted in Jerusalem, neither advancing age nor broken bones can stay this generous soul from running marathons and dancing in the street on behalf of those less fortunate.
His specific pet charity is Yachad Israel, the local branch of the Orthodox Union’s international nonprofit dedicated to including individuals with disabilities in Jewish communal life. He says his affinity for this group is due to his autistic grandson in Florida, the state where he and his wife lived from 1995 to 2003 before returning to Massachusetts.
Berren has two married sons and three grandchildren in America. But when his wife and sister both died four years ago, he decided to actualize his longheld dream of moving to Jerusalem, where his brother and sister-in-law made their home long ago.
“Before I came to Israel, I had an operation and came off the plane in a wheelchair,” he relates. That was in July. In September, he broke his ankle and was on a walker for three months.
“By December I felt good and had no limp, and because Hashem [God] healed me, I wanted to give back by raising money for Yachad,” he says. “They do very good work for children with disabilities.”
Both last year and this year, Berren raised $2,000 for Yachad Israel by dancing in Jerusalem’s Kanfei Nesharim Street and near the Mahaneh Yehuda market, and by participating in the Jerusalem Marathon.
“The moneys that we collect are for summer programs, vocational training, Taglit-Birthright trips and other social and recreational programs to give the clients a sense of belonging,” he explains.
He often accompanies Yachad Israel groups on programs. “I go with them and help out, and I entertain them with dancing. I’ve become close with a lot of them; I’m enjoying them and they’re enjoying me.”
New passion for marathons
Though he had certainly done his fair share of walking during his career as a letter carrier, Berren says he really wasn’t a runner before coming to Israel.
“Now I love running and dancing and inspiring others to run. Last year, the captain of the Yachad team said they wanted someone to run with me, and that’s good because it makes me run faster. I had a 20-yearold running to keep up with me,” he recalls.
“When I called Yachad to sign up for the Jerusalem Marathon again this year, the woman said, ‘How are you doing? You’re one year older.’ And I said, ‘No, you’re wrong; I’m one year younger.’ And I did the 10k in an hour and 12 minutes this year, compared to an hour and 39 minutes last year.”
Berren was featured in Belong, Yachad’s magazine, in an article titled “Marathon Miracle.” He proudly wears the marathon medallion around his neck, and mentions that in 2013 he also participated in the five-day Kilometers for Koby hike on the Golan Heights to benefit the Koby Mandell Foundation, and the 10th-annual Melabev Fund-raising Walkathon for Alzheimer’s Care in the Aminadav Forest.
He gets up to demonstrate how nimbly he can perform stretches and toe-touches. “If you try long enough, you get flexible,” he says, adding that he also loves to dance at weddings. “I can dance all night. If I’m tired, I sit down for half a minute and then get up and keep dancing. They say I inspire the hatan and kalla [groom and bride].”
‘I’m home’
Many of the weddings Berren attends are those of students at Machon Meir, a religious-Zionist outreach organization and yeshiva situated in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Kiryat Moshe. This is the neighborhood where he settled into an apartment near his older brother upon arriving in Israel in 2011.
He had first visited in 2010, when one of his three nieces was about to give birth. He ended up staying for a month. “I walked out on the street and saw all the men with kippot on their heads, and I said, ‘I’m home.’ “We grew up very Orthodox, and when I got married I was not as religious,” he explains. After his wife died, he began attending daily services at Congregation Beth Israel in Malden, a 35-minute drive from his home in Lynn. The rabbi and congregants there became like his second family, and helped him make aliya.
“When I came here, my brother suggested I go to Machon Meir. I go every day,” says Berren. He learns Talmud as well as works of Jewish philosophy and law, and takes advantage of trips they offer.
“I love to travel around Israel with Yachad and Machon Meir,” he says. “They go to places where you have to climb, and I love things like that. When we went to Mitzpe Ramon, climbing up the crater was a little tricky and I needed help, but I don’t need help most of the time.”
In fact, he relates, during a Yachad hike at Wadi Kelt, Arab onlookers applauded as they watched him jumping over rocks.
Undoubtedly, it was Berren’s extraordinary joie de vivre that earned him the designation as Tefillat Moshe synagogue’s senior citizen to honor with the third aliya to the Torah on the April 26 “Respecting Your Elders Shabbat,” a national initiative of Senior Citizens Minister Uri Orbach.
While he misses his own grandchildren, Berren is devoted to his brother’s 15 grandchildren. The only major challenge he acknowledges in his absorption has been the Hebrew language. But after attending ulpan at Beit Ha’am, he manages well enough.
“Every step in my absorption process, Hashem helped me overcome difficulties,” Berren says. “It was the smartest thing I did to move, because I feel 40 years younger. I love the climbing, I love the people, I love the learning, and I feel better about being dati [religious].”
If he could change one thing about Israel, it would be the ability to ascend the Temple Mount without the current restrictions imposed on Jews there.
“My only dream is to help a lot of people,” he says. “I love Israel and I’d do anything to help it. I want to live many more years to do that.”