It was a record-breaking minyan at this year’s ING New York City Marathon.
The worshipers may not have posed much of a challenge to the eventual men’s winner, Gebre Gebremariam of Ethiopia, nor did the ba’al tefila finish the Shaharit service in record time. (In fact, the service was longer than usual, thanks to the confluence of Nov. 7 with Rosh Hodesh — for Kislev — when prayers are added and the Torah read to mark the new month).
But the annual morning service before the big race attracted more worshipers than ever before, over 140, from a dozen different countries.
Though still a tiny fraction of the more than 40,000 runners, the number of running daveners (or davening runners) was large enough that two separate services — one at 7 a.m., and a later one at 8 — were needed to accommodate them all. Both were held in a tent at Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island, near the start of the 26.2-mile race at the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.
Livingston resident Peter Berkowsky, who founded the minyan 28 years ago, rose at 4 a.m. to get there in time. He still leads the service, although he no longer runs the marathon.
Organizing the minyan “has pretty much been a one-man operation,” he said. A group known as JRunners, dedicated to promoting Jewish participation in running events, stepped up to the plate this year, even bringing a Torah scroll from Brooklyn. There are plans in the works for JRunners to take over the entire operation, but, Berkowsky said, “I plan to be involved as long as I can.”
He offered a little gematria for the 28th year of the minyan. “The Hebrew letters for 28 are hof het, which spell the word koach, which means ‘strength.’”
Plenty of inspiration for runners can be found in the service — over the years it has been the custom of the group to recite the last three words in Hebrew of the daily blessing, Blessed art thou, O Lord, our God, who gives strength to the weary (“hanotein laya’ef koach”).
The minyan has also taken as its motto a pointed message to the runners — yarutzu v’lo yiga’u — those who trust in God shall run and not be weary, a passage from parshat Lech Lecha, often read around marathon time (this year a few weeks before).
Minyan attendance was augmented by the seven Jewish or Jewish-related charity teams entered in this year’s marathon, including The Blue Card, Chai Lifeline, Chaya Mushka Bikur Cholim of Crown Heights, Friendship Circle International, National Jewish Health (Denver), OHEL Children’s Home & Family Service, and Sharsheret.
Berkowsky, an attorney who plans to retire later this month, said, “Everybody asks me what I’ll be doing. Maybe one thing will be to write a book about the minyan.”