The man who helps New York City’s Jewish marathoners perform morning prayers

On Sunday, for the 36th time, Peter Berkowsky will wake up at 3:00 a.m., drive in the dark from his home in Livingston, NJ to Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island, and establish a Jewish prayer quorum before the race. , at the starting ground of the New York City Marathon.

“We announce that the first minyan will be at seven in the morning. As soon as I finish, and we have 10 more riders assembled, we will restart the minian, ”Berkowsky said. “We keep doing it until there are no more runners left,” a commitment that lasts all morning, until the 30,000 marathoners are ready and running.

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

Berkowsky, who is a lawyer and civil servant for the rest of the year, has not run a marathon since 1984, but he will never give up the minyan. “It’s my baby,” he said. “There are too many people who trust him.”

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

“We have a lot of people who are not Orthodox, a lot of people who are not observant at all, but who come to the minyan because they know that all the Jewish runners will be there,” Berkowsky explained. “It is very encouraging to see runners sharing tefillin, as if a runner from France shares his tefillin with someone from South America.”

In recent years, the minyan has been providing runners with the prayer accessories few would want to pull off in 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 were able to check their own supplies and retrieve them after the race, but that service was stopped in 2012.

Massive people blurred of marathon runners (credit: INGIMAGE)

It was an ad on Jewish Week that helped get the minyan off the ground.

In 1983, Berkowsky, at age 41, had worn tefillin only a handful of times in his life. But when his mother died while he was training for the marathon, he vowed to complete the full year of mourning, which includes saying Mourner’s Kaddish with a minian three times a day.

He had to find a way to round up a minian at Fort Wadsworth on the morning of the race, so he ran notices in all the local Jewish newspapers.

Jim Michaels, a conservative rabbi at the Whitestone Hebrew Center in Queens, responded to a bulletin he had seen on The Jewish Week. Berkowsky recalled that Michals said, “Yes, I would be interested. In fact, I did it all by myself in 1982. Fred Lebow walked by and looked at him twice when he saw me standing in the middle of the parade ground with my tefillin on. ”

The late Fred Lebow, a Holocaust survivor born Fischel Lebowitz in Arad, Romania, founded the New York City Marathon.

Berkowsky and Michaels collaborated through word-of-mouth campaigns and newsletters, and that first year, 26 people attended. The second year, the number doubled, prompted by an Israeli team that was not “necessarily observant,” but had been informed that the minyan was where all the Jewish runners met.

Rabbi Michaels has since moved to Maryland, but the minian’s legacy has remained. Berkowsky, along with his assistant Yisroel Davidson, now leads a team of 10 volunteers from across the tri-state area and Israel. He estimated that more than 200 people participated in different waves of the minyan in the last year that it was held, in 2019.

“The big surprise to me is actually how few people say Kadish,” said Berkowsky, who started the tradition to meet those needs. “We have had thousands of people participate in the minyan in the last 36 years. Very few of them speak Kaddish. These are people who just want to pray in a minyan. “

Berkowsky made it one of the minian’s goals to keep Fred Lebow’s name alive after his death in 1994. It was Lebow that Berkowsky contacted when he noticed, two years earlier, that the 1986 race would land in Simchat Torah, and who eventually moved the Carrera to the first Sunday in November, a date that stuck. It was Lebow who organized a tent for the minyan the few times the race fell on Rosh Chodesh and the minyan needed to bring a Torah to the starting field to celebrate the lesser holiday of the New Moon. (The Road Runner’s Society has provided a permanent tent since 2005; this year it will have electricity and heaters.)

It was Lebow who was driving in a car ahead of the marathon runners, cheering them on and making sure everything ran smoothly. As runners raced through the Hasidic neighborhoods of Williamsburg, Lebow yelled in Yiddish, “Runners need water!”

More and more runners and miniyan goers, Berkowsky said, did not know Lebow and some did not even recognize his name.

Lebow, Berkowsky explained, was much less religious than members of his family, who moved to Israel, Brooklyn and Monsey, New York when they came to the United States as refugees from the Holocaust. “But he was getting a lot more observant in his later months and years, and I think we probably had a lot to do with that,” Berkowsky said. When Lebow was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1990, the Minyan gathered around him to pray a Mi Sheberach prayer for healing.

“I mean, the guy was a mensch,” Berkowsky said. “It really was.” The last time Berkowsky saw Lebow was when the race organizer stopped by the minyan in 1992. Lebow had decided, for the first time, to run in his own marathon that year. It was also the only year that tefillin was worn on the minyan. He was 62 when he died two years later.

Berkowsky, who also helped start a minyan at the Miami Marathon, believes the New York City Marathon is unique. “There are a million people on the streets to cheer it on from start to finish, in all the different kinds of neighborhoods across the five boroughs. There is no other race like that. I like to think that our minyan is one of the things that makes the New York City Marathon unique, certainly for Jewish runners. ”Berkowsky’s favorite part of the service is when all the runners shout the last blessing together. AM: “Hanoten LaYoef Koach,” thanking God for giving strength to the weary, a particularly poignant blessing to say before the minian runners set off on their 26-mile journey.

“Some people who put on tefillin for the first time in the minyan, who knows? It could change their lives, you know, they could decide to do it more often, ”said Berkowsky, who hasn’t lost a day wearing tefillin since starting this minyan. “It’s a really good thing, that makes you feel good.”

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