2018-01-03 / Home

Sons of Israel’s Ephraim Epstein in training for health, charity, and more

A running rabbi:
By JAYNE JACOVA FELD Voice staff


Rabbi Epstein ran for the first time shortly before Thanksgiving. Rabbi Epstein ran for the first time shortly before Thanksgiving. On a brisk fall Friday morning, Cong.Sons of Israel Rabbi Ephraim Epstein took a break from his usual Shabbos preparations to start a new routine that will require the flexing of more than the usual intellectual muscles. Prayer books aside, he donned his seldom-used sweats and un-scuffed sneakers and headed to a Cherry Hill park close by the synagogue. In this serene setting, Epstein officially began training for the Jerusalem Marathon.

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“When was the last time I ran? Never,” said Epstein, 49, whose inaugural workout involved skipping and hopping exercises that emphasized safe landings on the balls of his feet. Accompanied by this Jewish Community Voice reporter, he then segued into actual jogging: 20 minutes at a pace that still allowed him to comfortably converse while moving his legs.

It was a good start in Epstein’s quest to make radical lifestyle changes for his own wellbeing. He is among 10 Orthodox rabbis in North America taking part in the “Rabbis Can Run” challenge. The unique program was created to help these spiritual leaders get into better shape while inspiring others—including congregants— to take their health more seriously. The program is sponsored by Kav L’Noar, an Israeli non-profit organization that helps at-risk youths in Israel.


Back in the day, Epstein was a standout athlete and captain of his basketball and tennis teams at his Yeshiva High School in North Jersey. Back in the day, Epstein was a standout athlete and captain of his basketball and tennis teams at his Yeshiva High School in North Jersey. “Rabbis Can Run,” provides training and nutritional guidance, a support network of peers and, ultimately, a free trip to Israel culminating in the running rabbis’ goal: Taking part in the 10-K portion of the Jerusalem Marathon on Mar. 9.

Like Epstein, the vast majority of participants are unlikely runners, explained Meir Kaniel, Kav L’Noar’s North American representative and program coordinator. Only one of the participants has running experience and is training for the Jerusalem half marathon.

“This program is not geared for the type of rabbi who is already in good shape,” said Kaniel, who is based in Passaic, NJ, where he also operates running programs for Orthodox youth. “We know the rabbis we are attracting are extremely busy and not necessarily looking for more things to do. It is designed to be as simple and as practical as possible. At the same time, we also made it exciting and very powerful as a draw to get the rabbis to sign on.”

Seriously, what could be a more exhilarating setting for a rabbi’s first race than the hilly Jerusalem terrain? The route, which starts by the Knesset building takes them through Jaffa Gate into the Old City, exiting Zion Gate and onwards past the City of David towards the finish line at Ben Zvi Boulevard.

For Epstein, who lived and taught in Jerusalem for nine years before returning stateside with his family in 2000, running through such sacred grounds was certainly a draw—enough even to open his heart and mind to running.

“The truth of the matter is that when I was young, marathoning was not en vogue,” said Epstein, a former standout high school athlete who—like so many—has tried and failed throughout the years to stick to an exercise routine.

“I got married in 1991 and stayed in Israel until the year 2000,” he said. “And when I came back here, it was like everyone had run a marathon. I never had a forethought to think it would be a good idea.”

Over the next 17 years, the notion of running for running’s sake did not grow any more appealing to the father of nine and spiritual leader of a thriving modern Orthodox synagogue. Yes, there was always a voice inside imploring him to take his own health more seriously. And there were many attempts, including during the four weeks he typically takes vacation each summer. He and his wife Debi have made it a habit to walk every day and eat healthier meals over the break.

“We do it and we feel wonderful, and I definitely knock off between six and 12 pounds and really think this is the year I’m going to get back in shape,” Epstein said. “But then the High Holidays happen, where I am going from responsibility to responsibility, compounded by some 25 meals with three or four courses. Even if you’re being careful, the weight comes back.”

There was the time some five years ago or so when he purchased five sessions with a personal trainer at the Katz JCC Fitness Center, where he sporadically works out. The idea behind that was that paying for private lessons might make him more motivated. However, three remain unused to this day.

“It’s a matter of never making exercise a rhythmic part of my daily and weekly responsibilities,” he concluded. “As a rabbi, there’s plenty of regular rhythm to being in a prayer service every day, and having the same Shabbat responsibilities every week, but there’s also so much on demand, on-call work. On the weekends, in my free time, I’m usually busy trying to write articles, and also making time every day to study, to keep those muscles going.”

On the verge of his 50th birthday, which is fast approaching in February, Epstein felt he could no longer ignore that nagging inner voice. Still, when an email arrived from Kav L’Noar inviting him to apply for Rabbis Can Run, Epstein thought it was a joke.

“I almost hit delete,” he admitted. “I thought it was too good to be true. I really need someone on my back teaching me what to do. And I could really benefit from having the support from a bunch of people working towards a goal in unison.”

Rabbis Can Run does all that. Now in its second year, its purpose is two-fold: The participating rabbis are given pointers to train safely while raising money and awareness for Kav L’Noar, which provides counseling, mentoring and friendship through what can sometimes be a tough transition to children of families that have made aliyah.

In 2017, the first year, Rabbis Can Run started with modest goals. Three rabbis were recruited to take the challenge. All took it very seriously, finished the marathon, and continue to run today, said Kaniel.

For Rabbi Yehoshua Fromowitz, spiritual leader of Ahavas Torah Center in Henderson, Nevada, participating in last year’s Jerusalem Marathon was so life-changing that he is going back this year with a few congregants who were inspired to start running.

The beginning, naturally, was the hardest part.

He and his wife followed a “Couch to 10K” program that advised starting by running for one minute, followed by a one-minute walk, a cycle meant to be repeated six times.

“Running for one minute was very difficult for us to do,” recalled Fromowitz, a 40-yearold father of seven. “We were both spitting up blood and hugging the ground after the first minute.”

They managed to work past the pain and build up to the goal. As prescribed in the program, Fromowitz never ran a full 10-K until marathon day. It was through the streets of Jerusalem that he pushed himself harder than he ever had.

“When you’re running up the hill towards the Old City and thinking of the history, you’re just not going to quit,” said Fromowitz, who is originally from Monsey, NY.

After losing 20 pounds, he continues to run three miles a day except on Shabbat. He said he sleeps better, has more energy and feels more focused for the things that matter—like Torah study.

It is now clear to him that running can be transformative.

“It’s a time of self reflection,” he said. “You’re up against yourself and it translates into spiritual growth.”

To sponsor Rabbi Epstein’s Jerusalem Marathon goals, visit https://www.run4kavlnoar.org/en/new-donation.php?athlete_race=273. 

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