Rabbi Dr. Josh Joseph Runs Jerusalem Marathon With Team Yachad

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The 13th annual Jerusalem Winner Marathon took place last Friday in the shadow of the October 7 massacre. A record 40,000 runners from 80 countries united in a show of solidarity and support for Eretz Yisrael, Medinat Yisrael and Am Yisrael — including our brothers and sisters in captivity and those who gave their lives Al Kiddush Hashem. 

Our Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Rabbi Dr. Josh Joseph and his daughter Marsha were among 400 runners representing OU Israel, as members of Team Yachad. An avid marathoner who runs the equivalent of a half marathon every Sunday when he is not traveling, Josh has completed a number of half marathons and three full ones, including the New York City Marathon in November, which he ran with his son Ozzie.

Now in Israel on an OU board mission — his third trip to the country since October 7 — we chatted with Josh about his Jerusalem Winner Marathon experience and feelings about being in Israel at such a challenging time for the Jewish people.

As Israel and the nation are still reeling from the effects of October 7, what did it mean to you to participate in the Jerusalem Winner Marathon together with thousands of fellow Jews?

Josh: It’s a complicated time to think about “play”. For example, several prominent rabbis have emphasized that this isn’t the time to take a vacation. But the notion of 40,000 runners uniting together with all of the people cheering us on, created a true feeling of amcha. There were so many runners that we were literally running on top of one another. I participated in the half marathon and that was packed, and I heard the 10k was even more crowded. Everyone was just encouraging each other and it was all smiles everywhere. It felt like everyone was running together, not away from something, but for something. Fortunately I have experienced that to some extent before because I’ve run on behalf of tzedakah organizations previously. But this was different. 

The feeling after the race was equally wonderful. I walked back from Gan Sacher where the race began and ended, to my hotel. All along the way, people who had completed the race were beaming. In the hotel elevator, there was a fellow Israeli runner and she just wanted to share her experience with me — we stayed there for a while! The uplifting feeling of connection permeated the event before, during, and especially after. It impacted me tremendously.

Could you elaborate on what you mean by running “for” something? 

Josh: I ran the Jerusalem Winner Marathon for a couple of purposes: one was as part of Team Yachad. I attended the pre-marathon party at the OU Israel Center in Jerusalem with 170 others and the energy was fantastic. From there, I went to NCSY’s pre-marathon party at Nefesh B’Nefesh’s Jerusalem Aliyah Campus, along with more than 70 Anglo olim teens. During some brief remarks I mentioned that I was going to run the half marathon. An Israeli-Canadian who was just released from active duty in Gaza, named Eliav Sabban, suggested we run together. The day of the race, I thought we’d start running together and then he would take off on his own. But he stayed with me the entire time. He would run ahead, get a water bottle, and bring it back to me. He kept looking over his shoulder to make sure that I was okay. He took care of me and I had only just met him the day before.

This was the first year that all runners representing the OU wore an OU Israel logo somewhere on their shirts. I give a lot of kudos to NCSY Israel Director of Regional Development Gaby Novick, Yachad Israel Director of Development Yoel Sterman, Yachad Israel Director Sima Kelner, OU Israel Executive Director Rabbi Avi Berman, Chief Operating Officer Natan Kandler, who ran the 10K, Director of Marketing Laya Bejell, and Director of Human Resources Sara Berelowitz, who all came to cheer everyone on. Over 400 OU Israel representatives were at the race and we really felt like we were all part of the OU family.

There’s a theory that I like to share that cites the three B’s of religious experience: the first is Belief or Bitachon. The second is Behavior; doing mitzvos and chessed, and learning Torah. The third “B”, which people sometimes overlook, is Belonging. When you belong to a community, you feel that you belong to something larger than yourself, deeper, more meaningful. At a micro level, I experienced that at the marathon as a member of Team Yachad. On a macro level, I felt a sense of belonging when running alongside 40,000 others. To live these moments with people coming together and running for something is a bracha, a Shehecheyanu.

The second reason I ran was in memory of 26-year-old Sergeant first class (res.) Yakir Hexter, hy”d, of the Combat Engineering Corps’ 8219th Battalion, who fell in Gaza in January. I am very close with his parents Josh and Chaya. The shirt I wore in Yakir’s memory said “Born to Run ” on it, which is a theme based on a book about running barefoot; Yakir ran the half marathon barefoot. I took off my shoes for a moment, but his younger brother Ezra ran the entire 10K barefoot in Yakir’s honor. Many runners sported “Born to Run” shirts, many ran for people in captivity, and many ran for those who, lo aleinu, have lost their lives in the last five months. We all ran for something. 

At a Siyum, we say, “Anu ratzim v’hem ratzim — They are running and we are running.” We’re running l’chaye olam haba, for a higher purpose. I believe that was the mindset of many of the participants — that we were running for a higher purpose.

As a member of Team Yachad, why do you believe Yachad’s participation in the marathon was so important — both for participants and spectators?

One of Yachad’s key goals is to foster inclusion. Beyond just making a Yachad participant or family member feel seen, inclusion means working with the community to become a more embracing place where everybody feels that they belong. That was the feeling with Team Yachad, where both participants and advisors were part of the same community. Many of the 319 Team Yachad runners were first- and second-year yeshiva and seminary students and that was an incredible statement not only for our present, but also our future. It was not only a testament to Yachad’s hard work in getting people involved and excited about the cause; it also spoke to participants’ declaration that, “This cause and these people matter to me. I want to be part of this community.” When you extend Yachad’s values to NCSY and the OU in Israel, and then to the broader OU in North America, those concentric circles reverberate and are felt by the entire Jewish community.

You not only increased your fundraising goal from the typical $2,200 to $5,000; you raised $7,161! Do you have a message for everyone who supported you?

To everyone who supported me, whether financially or through well-wishes, every time you smile at someone, you give them a bit of yourself. Every time you support someone, you become closer to them. I felt everyone’s presence, love, warmth and part in this community — even those who could not be with me physically. Actually, I could have used a bit more of their help running up the steep incline of Kovshei Katamon street at Kilometer 18 — I had reached a personal record pace until that hill and Hashem wanted other things! But seriously, I felt everyone’s support and am grateful to them all. I invite them to come run with me next year!