When Rabbi Ephraim Epstein was asked to participate in a 10K race, he thought it was a joke.
But he’ll be joining about a dozen other rabbis from across North America for Rabbis Can Run, a fundraising event that encourages Orthodox rabbis to participate in the Jerusalem Marathon on March 9 to raise money for Kav L’Noar — an Israeli organization, meaning “lifeline,” that provides counseling and mentoring programs for at-risk children and families.
It’s also a health initiative to promote healthy eating and exercise for the rabbis and their communities.
“Why is somebody calling to ask me if I want to run a marathon?” Epstein, rabbi of Congregation Sons of Israel in Cherry Hill, N.J., initially pondered. He was athletic as a teen, playing basketball and tennis, but long-distance running wasn’t one of his skills.
But the opportunity seemed like a dream, and he saw the marathon as a chance to finally push himself to get in better shape.
“They say every time your wife gets pregnant, you gain 10 pounds — and I have nine children,” he laughed. “And being a rabbi, going to 60 weddings and Bar Mitzvahs a year and staying up late at night preparing classes, sermons and writing articles are all a recipe for a lot of impulse eating.”
Runners are equipped with a running coach and a nutritionist — the latter is a rabbi based in Lakewood, N.J., who Epstein said he can relate to and trust, since the man lost 120-plus pounds and kept it off for 15 years.
His nutrition coach advised him to change his relationship with food — “I didn’t know I had one,” he laughed — and participants are obligated to run incrementally at least twice a week to train.
“The way to accomplish any reframing and recalibrating of behavior is both motivation combined with actual proven strategy and a peer group that enables somebody to draw support,” Epstein added. “All those three ingredients are in this program.”
The campaign hopes to hit a goal of $75,000, which goes directly to Kav L’Noar. Each participant has a personal sponsorship goal of $5,000 to help reach that total.
Rabbi Eliezer Hirsch of Mekor Habracha in Center City accepted the challenge for different health reasons.
Hirsch was diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson’s disease in 2009 at the age of 38, which was only known to close friends and family until he publicly disclosed his condition to his congregation in August 2017.
“I’ve never run a race in my life,” he admitted. Fitness isn’t foreign to him, but he always avoided running for fear of causing long-term damage to his legs, but he read it also strengthens bones, so Hirsch jumped onboard.
In addition, physical fitness has recently promised to be beneficial for Parkinson’s patients to help slow the progression of the disease and its symptoms, according to researchers from Northwestern Medicine and University of Colorado School of Medicine.
“Michael J. Fox always says that everyone who has young-onset Parkinson’s has a different story,” he noted. “It affects everyone differently. … But heavy, vigorous exercise basically contributes to a [protein molecule] that combats the effects of Parkinson’s.
“When I don’t work out for two or three days, I start to feel the symptoms creep up on me. And when I do work out, I feel tremendously different.”
Aside from promoting the work of Kav L’Noar, Hirsch hopes to enlighten others about Parkinson’s.
“If you met me, you might notice something but you wouldn’t really see that I have anything visible, anything different,” he explained. “I want to be an advocate for Parkinson’s. … I want people to know that [exercise] can help them.”
Almost 50 years old, Epstein said it’s not too late to jump on the workout bandwagon, too, and he hopes the marathon inspires others to challenge themselves and improve their own health.
“You never know where your opportunity is going to stem from,” he said. “This has given me hope and the opportunity to extend something that, really, there is no good reason for it not to be extended.”
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