“It was a beautiful day. I was so excited to run and having such a good run. The crowd was unbelievable. The whole experience was amazing. It was almost magical.”
That’s how Benjamin David, head rabbi at Adath Emanu-El in Mt. Laurel, N.J., felt as he completed the Boston Marathon with a personal best time of three hours and 21 minutes.
Those emotions turned in an instant as the 36-year-old shuffled his exhausted, “annihilated” body from the finish area to his hotel.
“I was about to put my hand on the door to go into the lobby when I heard a massive explosion. It was an extraordinary sound. You knew instantly that something was wrong.”
David knew what kind of wrong. He was in Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, as a student at the Reform seminary’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which is located about two miles from the World Trade Center.
“When the first plane hit the tower, it was a sound like a sound you don’t normally hear. That’s what this was today. A sound that you don’t normally hear and your brain says, ‘Is something wrong?’ ” he said Monday night in a phone interview from his hotel room, just two blocks from where twin explosions shattered the marathon. “When we heard the second bomb, like when there was the second plane on 9/11, then we knew for sure that something was very wrong.”
The terrorist attack has killed at least three people, including an 8-year-old boy, and wounded more than 140, some critically.
David had traveled to Boston to run the marathon with Rabbi Scott Weiner, senior rabbi of Temple Israel of New Rochelle in Westchester, N.Y. The rabbinical school friends co-founded The Running Rabbis, a national organization that encourages clergy — Jewish and not — and their congregants to run. When they run, they do it for charity. For the Boston Marathon, the pair were raising money for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute.
Though David has completed 20 half-marathons and 13 marathons, this was his first time at the Boston Marathon. He trained for 10 months in the hopes of beating his previous record time. He succeeded by two minutes. Weiner was one minute ahead of him.
When the bombs went off, people were running everywhere, David recounted.
“No one knew what happened so you don’t know what to do. We thought maybe the grandstand had collapsed, or a building. I grabbed someone and he said that two bombs went off.”
He went up to his room to put on the news.
“Isn’t that strange? Here I am, two blocks from the thing, and my instinct is still to turn on the TV to see what happened. But then, from the window in my room, I could see basically everything. So, the local news was on and there was confusion and speculation and I’m looking out the window and looking right at what is being called a terrorist attack.”
Weiner , 37, had been walking toward the bleachers at the finish line to meet up with his wife and two young children when the bombs exploded. Everyone was coming away from the blast, but he pushed his way in.
He passed injured people being wheeled away on gurneys, golf carts and wheelchairs. “There was a lot of blood. I didn’t focus on it. I just kept moving.”
He stopped to offer his cell phone to a young woman who was standing by herself, sobbing uncontrollably. “She said that her father had been working at the marathon and was supposed to have been right where the bomb detonated. She couldn’t find him.” But the phone wasn’t working, so Weiner found a police officer who located her father.
The bleachers had been evacuated by the time Weiner got to them. He headed to David’s hotel, thinking that maybe his wife would have done the same. His hunch was right. He found his family there and they drove home that night.
“Normally, on the day after a race, I’d be in a much better mood than I am,” Weiner said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “There is sadness and some anger. But the spirit of the marathon will not be broken. Next year, even more people will run.”
Meanwhile, David’s family was not with him in Boston but they still knew what was happening with him. Like most of the marathoners, he had a chip on his clothes so his progress could be tracked via a secure website.
His father, Rabbi Jerome David of Cherry Hill’s Temple Emanuel, had seen that his son had finished the race and texted him to find out how it went.
“He texted back, ‘Turn on the news,’ ” Jerome David said. “I was shaken, even though I knew he was safe. It brought back memories of 9/11 because Ben and his brother John were both very close to the Trade Center that morning and we couldn’t reach either of them. This time, at least I heard from him. But even so, it’s the same feeling. It’s worrying about your child — and I know very well that he is a grown man — but he is my child. And he was again in the middle of danger. And there was nothing I could do about it right then.”
David also texted his wife, Lisa, the mother of their three young children, just a few hours before she boarded a plane to Israel for a business trip. She is the associate director of camping for the Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp and Israel Programs.
Dr. Steve Gitler, president of Adath Emanu-El, found out about the bombing from his daughter.
“She texted, ‘Is Rabbi alright?’ and I answered, ‘What do you mean?’ ”
Once he learned that David was OK, he spread the news in an email to the congregation and a message on the synagogue’s Facebook page.
David’s father, who was also a runner, said the tragedy reminded him of what’s most important — family, health and friendship. Monday night, he went to a men’s study group and an executive board meeting where he was surrounded by friends.
“I am a rabbi and lead my congregation, but I am also a father and grandfather and tonight, I needed the support of my congregants. Rabbis need that, too, you know.”
Support came in droves for the younger David, who said his phone hasn’t stopped ringing since the race.
“The marathon is so emotional and you spend so much time preparing,” he said on Monday. “God willing it goes well and it’s an accomplishment. And I do feel that accomplishment. But then, there are people who died today and they died right outside my window.”
But he also had a different view he was trying to hold on to.
“Today, we saw what looks like hate and violence. But what I also saw was a day of togetherness and community and caring and support — much like the marathon itself,” he said.
“Every marathon is about celebrating the human spirit and supporting one another. It’s about people from around the country and around the world, from different backgrounds and different religions running together. That is what I will remember from today, from before the bombing and right after it.
“Tragedy reduces things to the most primal and most important factors,” he said, echoing his father’s words: family, friends, community and helping strangers.
In the attacks both on 9/11 and on Monday, he said, “we will see the best in humanity come out.”
“And one more thing: I will run the Boston Marathon next year,” David said. “Nothing will keep me from it.”