With coal miners’ headlamps lighting their way, more than 1,000 runners gathered at a cemetery outside the Israeli town of Arad on Aug. 7 for a midnight race to Masada.
Drawing competitors from as far away as France and the United States, the “Arad-Masada Half-Marathon to the Sunrise” was the brainchild of Hila Tsahi, a business consultant in Arad with close ties to the Greater MetroWest Jewish community.
Tsahi is a member of the Jewish Agency’s Partnership2Gether Arad Renewal Team, which is composed of 12 Arad residents and 12 New Jerseyans through the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
The race meshed with the Partnership’s efforts to expand economic and social opportunities in Arad, a “development” town deep in Israel’s Negev.
“Our goals include increasing public awareness of Arad and branding it as a sport destination, among other things, increasing tourism in Arad, promoting running and a healthy community, and providing a fun summer opportunity for families in the Negev,” said Randi Brokman, Israel and Overseas associate at the GMW federation’s Legow Family Israel Program Center.
In some ways, Tsahi is an unlikely person to have organized the event.
“Until four years ago, I was very lazy and smoked three packs of cigarettes every day,” she told NJ Jewish News in a phone interview. “Then I quit smoking and I fell in love with running. Arad has good weather. It is not humid and very dry and a good place. So I got the idea of a race to Masada at sunrise, because there is no sunrise like the one in Masada all over the world.”
Masada is the desert fortification where 960 Jews committed suicide rather than face capture by Roman invaders in the year 73 or 74 BCE.
Tsahi “dreamed of an event that would help the people of her city,” said Brokman. “She wanted to expose Arad to the broader Israeli society, because many people drive right past it en route to Eilat or the Dead Sea.”
Tsahi organized participants into eight different groups arranged by age and gender.
The runners ranged in age from 17 to 75 and were given a choice of one of two races. The shorter one, which spanned 11 kilometers (close to seven miles), was dedicated to the memory of Omer Rabinovitch, an Israeli soldier from Arad who died in the Gaza War of 2009. The longer 18-kilometer race (11 miles) was sponsored by local businesses and had no memorial component.
“It was very powerful. To look back and see all the people with the headlights running through Arad to Masada was really so emotional,” Tsahi said.
She ran the 11-kilometer course in one hour and 10 minutes, about a half-hour behind the winner, and told NJJN she considered her time a bit disappointing. “I was very tired because I didn’t sleep the night before,” she said. “I was up finalizing final plans for the event.”
The winner of the 11k race finished in under an hour. The winner of the 18k completed the course in one hour and five minutes.
In July 2016 the Arad Renewal Team is planning an 18-kilometer race. Although the Greater MetroWest P2G steering committee did not give any money for this year’s event, it has already allocated $20,000 to help organize next year’s race. “I hope people will go there from here to participate as a living bridge between our two communities,” Brokman said.
Tsahi agreed. “I want to see runners from Greater MetroWest next year. It is so important to me,” she said.
She added that she “couldn’t have planned the race without the help of my big family and friends from the P2G Arad Renewal Team. They all worked very hard for the success of this race.”