Honoring a commitment

Honoring a commitment

Peter Berkowsky talks about how and why he founded the NYC Marathon minyan

The NYC Marathon Minyan in 2017. (All photos courtesy Peter Berkowsky)
The NYC Marathon Minyan in 2017. (All photos courtesy Peter Berkowsky)

When Peter Berkowsky’s mother, Sydelle, died in 1981, he realized that he had to make a choice.

Or, to be accurate, he realized that he had no choice.

Mr. Berkowsky, who lives in Livingston, was a runner, and he had planned on training for the marathon. “But I had committed myself to giving my parents a full year of mourning, even though that prospect terrified me.”

To prepare to run in the marathon — he was thinking specifically about the New York City Marathon, but it’s true of any one of them — you have to commit yourself to running increasingly longer distances almost every day. To mourn your parents properly, according to Jewish law, you have to say kaddish every day. To have a full-time job, you have to commit yourself to going to work; it’s not so hard to schedule yourself for one daily commitment outside work, but two is pushing it.

“But I was determined to honor my mother,” Mr. Berkowsky, a lawyer and civil servant who spent most of his career as a court attorney for New York State’s appellate division, said.

And he did.

A scene from a minyan in 2016 as a runner gets help with tefillin.

After he finished kaddish for his mother, Mr. Berkowsky continued to go to a daily minyan, and also “I ran my first marathon.” It was 1983.

“And I was thinking, ‘I have just finished my year of aveilus” — of mourning — “but what about all those runners who are still saying kaddish? They have to leave home at 3 in the morning for the marathon. What are they doing about a minyan?

“So I sent an alert to all the Jewish newspapers in the metropolitan area, asking if there was anyone who was interested in a minyan.

“I got one response, from a Conservative rabbi in Whitestone, Queens.” Mr. Berkowsky is Orthodox; he is a member of the Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center. But that was not relevant. “It was Jim Michaels, who lives in Maryland now. He’s known as the Running Rabbi.

“He said, ‘Yeah, I am a marathoner, and last year I davened alone at Fort Wadsworth.’” That’s on Staten Island; it’s where the NYC Marathon begins.

“So I said, ‘Let’s get together.’

Peter Berkowsky is at the minyan with runner Tzvi Katz of Clifton in 2019.

“And we went to Fred Lebow.”

Fred Lebow was the charismatic runner and visionary who created the New York City Marathon and presided over its growth until he died, at 62, in 1994. He was born as Fischel Lebowitz in Romania in 1932; although he was not religiously observant as an adult, he never forgot his background, or his childhood in an Orthodox family.

“He is very much part of my story,” Mr. Berkowsky said. “When the marathon started, in 1970, it was just four loops around Central Park, and it drew just a few hundred people. And then in 1976, the year of the bicentennial” — of the United States, which was celebrated with joy and both metaphoric and literal fireworks across the country — “he decided to go to the city fathers and say, ‘Will you close down the city for a day and allow me to run a five-borough extravaganza?’ Most people thought he was bonkers. The police department said no. The fire department said no. But he was a great salesman, and he convinced them that it would be a moneymaker. So they closed down the city.”

And Fred Lebow was right. “It was a spectacular success,” Mr. Berkowsky said.

In 1983, Mr. Berkowsky and Rabbi Michaels knew that if they wanted to start a minyan at the marathon, Mr. Lebow was the man to ask.

“I didn’t know Fred before, but he was a gregarious person,” Mr. Berkowsky said. “And he was a Holocaust refugee. His whole family survived, and he was one of the few nonobservant members of his family. He had a religious neshama.” A religious soul. “The idea resonated with him. He said, ‘Of course. Of course!’

A second-year minyan, in 1984.

“Other people high up in the Road Runners Society didn’t think it would be such a good idea, but Fred was very supportive.”

That first year, 26 people showed up, Mr. Berkowsky said. “Most of them were members of Lincoln Square,” the Upper West Side Orthodox synagogue near Lincoln Center. “Rabbi Riskin” — that’s Shlomo Riskin, who headed the shul then and later made aliyah, where he became the chief rabbi of Efrat and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone — “was very supportive.”

After two years, “I looked at the calendar, and I saw that in 1986, the marathon, which then was run on the last Sunday in October, was going to be on Simchat Torah,” Mr. Berkowsky said. “Talk about chutzpah — I started a letter-writing campaign to get rabbis to write a letter to Fred Lebow to ask him to put the marathon off for a week, so it wouldn’t conflict.

“I used three arguments. First, I said that there probably are more Jewish runners in the New York City Marathon than Jewish athletes who participate in any other sporting event in the world. Even the Maccabiah. And a lot of them — not all of them, but a lot of them — won’t run on Simchat Torah.

“Number two — Fred was very big on establishing good relationships with all the ethnic communities he ran through. Williamsburg” — home to many Chasidic Jews — “is one of them. Fred spent a lot of time getting the chasidim to come out and support the runners. He got them to come out.” It was a hard sell at first — women runners, dressed as runner dress, were not likely to appeal to the community — but he kept at it, and he made it work.

“He always rode in the lead car, with a bullhorn. He always had something for every ethnic community. In Williamsburg, he would yell, in Yiddish, that the runners need water.

In 1990, Fred Lebow, at left, receives a Mi Sheberach.

“We told him that he didn’t want to offend the Jews of Williamsburg by running through their streets on Simchat Torah.” And the streets would be so full of people that it would be hard to clear a path anyway.

“The third argument was that this coincidence, the last Sunday in October coinciding with Simchat Torah, happens just two or three times a century, and it wouldn’t happen again for the rest of the century. So I said how about just this year, putting it off until the first Sunday in November?

“So lo and behold, a week after the 1985 marathon, Fred Lebow holds a press conference, and says, ‘Next year, the marathon will be on the first Sunday in November.’ He used all kinds of excuses; later, he acknowledged that he did it to avoid the conflict with Simchat Torah.”

It wasn’t easy, Mr. Berkowsky said; the marathon is televised across the country, and the networks set their schedules for such events more than a year in advance. “But he did it.

“So in 1986, the marathon was on the first Sunday in November. Which is good for runners for two reasons — the weather is just a little bit cooler, and we change the clocks that weekend, so they get an extra hour of sleep.

“The marathon has been the first Sunday in November ever since, and that was because of us.”

The minyan in 1992.

Something else happened that year. “I wrote Fred another letter, saying that we had another problem,” Mr. Berkowsky said. “The first Sunday in November is going to be rosh chodesh,” the first day of a new month. “We will need a sefer Torah,” a Torah scroll, because a morning minyan on rosh chodesh includes a Torah reading. “It will be a little more complicated.

“And Fred wrote back immediately and said, ‘I will not allow you to daven in the open on that day. I insist that it be in a tent. I don’t want to take responsibility for a Torah being damaged.’”

Since then, three marathon Sundays have fallen on a rosh chodesh. “It won’t happen again until late in this century,” Mr. Berkowsky said. Since then, the minyan has met in a tent. “We’ve been in the same place for the last 15, 20 years.”

The first year, “Rabbi Michaels brought the sefer Torah. He also brought his young son, who had just broken his leg, so he was on crutches. That year, my second son was born on October 30, and I got an aliyah, and Rabbi Michaels made a Mi Sheberach,” a prayer for healing, “for my son and my wife.

“People were dancing. It was an amazing thing.”

At first, the daveners would bring their own tallitot, tefillin, and siddurim and Mr. Berkowsky’s wife, Dolores, would drive them into Manhattan. For the first few years, she’d bring them to the Central Park West apartment of a Lincoln Square member; it was very close to the finish line, so that was easy. When there were too many for even a large apartment, she brought them to the Congregation Shearith Israel. That shul, perhaps better known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, also is on Central Park West and also is close to the finish line. But it’s hard to drive into Manhattan, much less to get close to the park, on marathon day. Now, minyan participants are encouraged not to bring their own tallitot and tefillin. Mr. Berkowsky works with a local Chabad group, which supplies them.

The minyan in 1986; the Torah is being read because it’s rosh chodesh Cheshvan.

There now are many minyanim; as soon as there are enough participants for the first one to start, it does; after that, as soon as it finishes, the next one begins. The race’s start times are staggered, so that works well.

Minyan participants comes from all over, Mr. Berkowsky said; they’re still waiting for someone from Antarctica, but they’ve drawn people from all the other continents, and from many countries. There usually are about 200 daveners a year now; “over the years, there have been thousands. People usually hear about it by word of mouth.”

Most of the participants are Orthodox, although many are not. Most are men, but there are some women too, and there has been no conflict over egalitarian minyanim. People tend to sort themselves out, Mr. Berkowsky said. Surprisingly few participants are there to say kaddish. “But they want to daven in a minyan.

“A lot of people come and put on tefillin for the first time. That was not my intent, but it is wonderful.

“We even had a shidduch,” a meeting that ended in a marriage, he continued. “A number of years ago, my wife saw a young woman davening who said, ‘I met my husband at the minyan.’ Now they have children.”

There’s no fundraising at the minyan, Mr. Berkowsky said — and only in response to a question. “The closest I have come to it is to pass a pushke” — a little metal box — “around.” No one is obligated to put anything into it. “It is my prerogative to pick the charity. This year, it’s Operation Benjamin.” That nonprofit organization works to find graves of American Jewish service members who have been buried under the religious symbols of a religion that was not theirs, and to mark them properly, and with appropriate love and dignity.

Mr. Berkowsky looks back on the 37 years of marathon minyanim with pride and wonder.

“My father, Samuel Berkowsky, lived for another three and a half years after my mother died,” he said. “When he died, I gave him the same honor,” never missing a minyan. In fact, Mr. Berkowsky goes to minyan every day, still. “I’ve never missed a day,” he said.

The New York City Marathon minyan? It’s a marvel, “and it’s all in zechut,” in honor, “of my mother.”

What: New York Marathon minyan

When: On Sunday, November 7; the first will start at about 7 a.m. and others will follow

Where: In a tent on Drum Road at Fort Wadsworth, close to the main gate

For more information: Email Peter Berkowsky at peterberkowsky@gmail.com or Yisroel
Davidsohn at davidsohn888@gmail.com

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