The NYC Marathon is back - and so is its minyan

Publication Date08 November 2021
AuthorJulia Gergely
"We announce that the first minyan will be at seven o'clock in the morning. As soon as that's over, and we have 10 more runners gather, we start the minyan again," said Berkowsky. "We just continue to do it until there's no more runners left" — a commitment that lasts the whole morning, until all 30,000 marathoners are off and running.

The New York City Marathon is back after a two-year, pandemic-induced hiatus, and Berkowsky is ready to celebrate what's known as the world's largest marathon just as he has since 1983.

Berkowsky, who is an attorney and civil servant during the rest of the year, hasn't run a marathon since 1984, but he'll never give up on the minyan. "It's my baby," he said. "There's just too many people who rely on it."

Berkowsky believes the minyan is the longest established religious service of any kind at any major sporting event anywhere in the world, something the New York Road Runners, the marathon's organizer, is very proud of.

"We get a lot of people who are not Orthodox, a lot of people who are not observant at all, but they come to the minyan because they know all the Jewish runners are going to be there," Berkowsky explained. "It is very heartening to see runners sharing tefillin — like a runner from France would share his tefillin with somebody from South America."

In recent years, the minyan has been providing runners with the prayer accoutrements few would want to carry on the 26.2 mile-long race: prayer shawls, prayer books and the small black box and leather straps of the tefillin worn on the head and arm during the traditional morning service. Berkowksy partnered with a local Chabad to make sure they had enough.

In the past, runners would be able to check their own supplies and retrieve them after the race, but that service was halted in 2012.

It was a notice in The Jewish Week that helped get the minyan off the ground.

In 1983, Berkowsky, at age 41, had put on tefillin only a handful of times in his life. But when his mother died while he was training for the marathon, he committed to completing the full year of mourning, which includes saying Mourner's Kaddish with a minyan three times a day.

He had to find a way to gather a minyan in Fort Wadsworth the morning of the race — so he put out notices in all the local Jewish papers.

Jim Michaels, a Conservative rabbi at the Whitestone Hebrew Centre in Queens, responded to a bulletin he had seen in The Jewish Week. Berkowsky recalled Michaels saying, "Yeah, I'd be interested...

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