A run for your money

Four olim are organizing a relay race from Jerusalem to Eilat to raise money for Afikim.

Run for your money (photo credit: SARAH LEVIN)
Run for your money
(photo credit: SARAH LEVIN)
One morning several months ago, while participating together in one of the country’s popular running events, Justin Rockman, Jason Gardner, Levi Levine and Josh Krycer reached a decision: They wanted to find a good cause to run for.
The four friends started asking around about possible causes, finally deciding on Afikim – an organization that works with at-risk youth – partly because Rockman’s wife, Gila, had recently been involved with the organization’s programs and been impressed by the association’s activities and achievements.
Gila is about to give birth, Gardner is on IDF reserve duty, and Rockman has to travel abroad for his job, but nothing, apparently, can stop these people from carrying out their ambitious plan: to run a relay race from Jerusalem to Eilat.
With an additional 12 runners already lined up to join them, and a growing network of supporters, that plan is close to becoming a reality.
Afikim – which was established about 10 years ago – takes a different approach to aiding children and youth at risk than do most other organizations working in that field, explains its founder, Moshe Yossef Lefkowitz. Rather than taking them out of their natural environments – home, their parents and school – the support the program provides is a “package deal” involving the whole family, he says.
“If a child in fourth grade has difficulties at home – parents who are deeply busy with their own hardships, like isolation due to language barriers [in the case of new immigrants], or unemployment and poverty, which too often lead to a total cutting-off between them and their children – we have a classic situation in which the child becomes at-risk,” explains Lefkowitz. “That is why we always combine helping the child – in his needs at school – and the connection with the parents, to reestablish a balanced situation. Otherwise it’s just temporary help.”
In the planned race there will be 16 runners in total, all very close friends, all about the same age (in their 30s) married with children, who live in nearby neighborhoods – between Baka and the German Colony and Katamon – and attend some of the same synagogues nearby.
While most of the 16 are new or not-so-new olim – many of them from Australia, but also from the US, South Africa and France – there are a few native Israelis in the group as well.
“The common denominator is that we all run,” says Rockman. “We have, over the years, collected some of the more famous runs, like the marathons in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv, the ‘Yam to Yam’ run [from Jerusalem, which is abbreviated in Hebrew as ‘Yam,’] to the Mediterranean Sea, and many more, besides simply running on a regular basis in the neighborhood.”
It was during the “Yam to Yam” run that the idea for the current race came about, he recalls.
“We thought, why not Jerusalem-Eilat – after all, we are in some way looking for new challenges, and that one sounded really thrilling to us all.”
The eyes of the four young men, sitting with this reporter around a coffee-shop table, shine with excitement as they remember how the whole thing started.
“Running as a basic thing we all do regularly is fine. We all run between two and four times a week, sometimes more,” says Krycer. “But we wanted to do more. We are all involved in one way or another in activities for the community, but we wanted to find a way to link the two things.”
Since Gila Rockman works with the American-based Yeshiva University, which provides funds and runs many programs aiding children and youth in Israel, she was exposed to Afikim’s work. Afikim has seven centers in Jerusalem schools and a few more across the country, all in periphery towns and neighborhoods that are impoverished and lack the support necessary to help immigrant children integrate with their peers.
“My job is to provide services to ensure the financial success of companies,” says JustinRockman. “I know how money can be thrown away or can be used wisely. Afikim is definitely a wise investor.
It’s not just another project providing food baskets or some recreational programs for underprivileged children; it’s much more than that. That’s what attracted and convinced us to do something for them right from the beginning. They make longterm investments in the most important commodity we have – people. I am happy to have witnessed the positive impact they have on those lucky enough to be part of their programs.”
Rockman, A 38-year-old father of three (with the fourth expected to arrive soon) was born and raised in Melbourne, Australia. He is a lawyer, but since making aliya at the age of 23, he has been working in software.
He says he can’t remember being such an avid runner until 10 years ago, when he lived across from New York’s Central Park. He ran his first 10K race six years ago and his first half-marathon (21 km.) two years ago.
“I’ve now set an aim of running 1,000 km. in 2013 and have just surpassed that goal. I run for the serenity,” he explains with a smile. He is already dressed for the twohour run he plans to take right after our meeting, after which he’ll head home to join his wife in putting the children to bed.
Gardner, a father of four who works as a banqueting sales representative at the King David Hotel, says that although family is everything to him, he couldn’t tell you what his daughter studied in class a week ago. That may not be an obstacle to his children’s advancement, since theirs is a functional family that is well-established in the community, but the situation is very different for underprivileged families.
“That’s why Afikim’s method of working with the family is brilliant,” he says. “It works with the family together – assisting parents and their kids so they can succeed as a unit. What could be more efficient than that?” It was precisely that method that drove him and his friends to choose the organization for their running project.
Born and raised in New York, Gardner made aliya at the age of 18 and has been living in Jerusalem ever since. He started to run three years ago, training for the Jerusalem Marathon. Since then, he says with a large smile, he has been following in Forrest Gump’s footsteps: He just keeps running.
“We always look for more advanced challenges in our running practice,” says Krycer. “On a regular basis, we run a few times a week, because that’s become a part of our regular training to keep in shape. But running is more than just keeping in shape, it’s about overcoming challenges. It’s like people who climb mountains and the like – you have to feel that you have a goal, something to achieve that stands behind the physical effort you invest here.”
As for Levine, a nurse in a hospital in the city, it’s about “pushing yourself a little bit more every time.”
He explains that “it’s first about fun that has become a way of life. But we all felt that we needed to focus on running for a cause. Otherwise it would be lacking something.”
Lefkowitz, A veteran in nonprofit groups that work for the welfare of impoverished and underprivileged people, mostly children, recounts several success stories Afikim has achieved. One case involved a young student from Ethiopia, who, at the end of the organization’s support program, took his matriculation exam in the same year as his own father – who had never had the required support to do so before.
“That’s the heart of our endeavor,” says Lefkowitz.
“We work in complete coordination between the children at risk whom we help, and their families. It goes together.”
The Afikim founder is a member of the Alexander Hassidic sect, which originated in Hungary and was almost completely exterminated by the Nazis. As a haredi, he says, his main vision is to help the nonharedi public. He has the backing of the Education Ministry, which has recognized him as a purveyor of an important and successful project; ministry officials represent him first at every new school he approaches to launch his program. He has made sure to surround himself with both religious and secular people on his staff, and the same goes for the organization’s board.
Afikim’s president, for instance, is Orna Angel, who is secular and was one of Ehud Barak’s closest assistants when the latter was IDF chief of staff.
But Lefkowitz’s mission is the sort that easily brings people from different backgrounds together to make it happen. And he is happy to have the upcoming race’s organizers on board.
“Fund-raising, even for such a holy cause, has become a very difficult thing,” he admits with a sigh. “So we have to be very innovative and spread our word in any way possible. These guys – Justin and Jason and their friends – overwhelmed me with their enthusiasm, their capacity to believe in our cause and our project, and I have become, of course, as enthusiastic about it as they are.”
The schedule for the Jerusalem-Eilat run is taking shape, and it is set to take place from December 18 to 20. It will kick off from the capital’s Jaffa Gate, where the runners will be accompanied and encouraged by family members and friends – “and in fact, anyone who feels that it’s a good cause to support,” says Rockman – and will continue down the Mesila Park path as far as the Oranim junction.
The 16 runners will divide up the route among them, with two runners taking each segment of 10 kilometers (about an hour of running) and then handing on the next leg to the following two runners.
Each participant will run more than 50 km. in total.
Asked about the organizational requirements for such a project, the four friends admit immediately that their first concern is the need for a larger escort.
“We need more people to accompany us on the road,” Rockman explains. “Our circuit goes through Machtesh Ramon, which is not an easy place, and according to our schedule, we will run there during the night.”
Their plan is to combine running and driving from one segment to another, but they say they would definitely appreciate some additional staff to help out.
“Food, accompaniment, especially during the night shift of the run – we will be running with no break for 24 hours,” notes Krycer.
“It’s not an easy task, but we are so committed that we are ready to do it mostly on our own, [though] of course, anyone interested... is more than welcome to join and help. There are many things we can still add to ease the project and make it successful. We want people to understand that Afikim is doing an extraordinary job for us, and we should all participate, running or fund-raising,” adds Rockman.
He explains that so far, they have already raised about 20% of their target sum of $100,000 – “and that’s even before we’ve brought it to [broader] public attention, just through personal contacts and friends.”
This Saturday night at 8 p.m., the launch event for the fund-raiser will take place at Afikim headquarters at 44 Jabotinsky Street, Jerusalem (the Yad Nissim building), featuring a stand-up comedy evening by performer Kobi Arieli. All proceeds will go to the Afikim project.