As some of you may know, either through my previous articles, numerous online posts, or non-stop chatter about the topic, I recently had the pleasure of attending Yachad’s marathon weekend event in Miami Beach, Florida. I was invited to participate in this incredible experience, both as a writer and as a runner, and to feel firsthand what the words unity, commitment, dedication, and inspiration truly mean.
It all started three years ago when Yachad, the National Jewish Council for Disabilities, put together a team of 29 runners to participate in the ING Miami Marathon and Half Marathon, with the goal of raising much-needed funds for this incredible organization. The following year, that number doubled, with 77 runners committing to and running the marathon. This year was their most successful one yet, with 135 runners fundraising, training for, and running 13.1 or 26.2 miles, all with the same goal: to help Yachad continue their dedicated work of enhancing the life opportunities of individuals with disabilities, and ensuring their participation in the full spectrum of Jewish life.
My experience with Yachad began well before the actual marathon, dating back about six months or so when I first signed up to join the team. After my initial meeting with some of the dedicated staff members and runners in a New Jersey high school, I attended a couple of training sessions with Coach Jasmine (“Jaz”) Graham, who patiently answered every question I threw at her, and who provided me with my very own training regimen to fit my schedule.
After months of training and hard work, I hopped on a plane from rainy New York City to beautiful, sunny Miami Beach. The weekend began with the entire group meeting on Friday and registering for the race at the Miami Beach Convention Center, which was packed with booths, vendors, visitors and excited runners who were gearing up for Sunday’s race. After that, it was off to the beautiful Newport Beachside Resort in Sunny Isles, Florida on a chartered bus, followed by a lovely Friday afternoon lunch.
Then it was off to our hotel rooms to get ready for Shabbos. Walking into the beautiful room that the staff at Yachad had prepared, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a travel bag waiting for me, filled with goodies like snacks, drinks, health items, orange Team Yachad T-shirts, headbands, and several other surprises. On the bag were two tags; one had my name with the title “runner,” the other had my three-year-old daughter’s name with “fan club” underneath. It seemed like Yachad had taken care of every detail – from the couch-bed pulled out and made up for my daughter, to the many bottles of Gatorade that were provided for us even before the actual race.
It has been quite a number of years since I’ve attended summer camp, but that’s exactly what Shabbos with Yachad felt like. From the beautiful Friday night davening, to the heartfelt singing at the Shabbos table, to the warm feeling of unity that was felt throughout the entire Shabbos, from beginning to end. Many of the runners were high school students who are connected to or involvedwith Yachad and are tremendous supporters of its work. Other runners included college students, grad students, and professionals who took time off of work to support Team Yachad. Others were staff members from different branches of the Orthodox Union throughout the country, and came with their families, some even recruiting their spouse to run right along with them. However they got there or whatever their motivation, every member of Team Yachad contributed to the Shabbaton and to the entire weekend in their own unique way – helping make it as special as it was.
Shabbos afternoon consisted of a beautiful Shabbos lunch, followed by a chance for everyone to enjoy the boardwalk, the beach, or to simply rest. Right after shalosh seudos, everyone gathered in a circle to sing Shabbos zemiros as a group. This was followed by one of my personal highlights of the weekend: a question-and-answer session with Richard Bernstein. Bernstein, 37, is blind since birth, and ran with Team Yachad for the first time in this year’s ING Miami Marathon. He has completed 15 marathons – including seven NYC Marathons, the Ironman Triathlon and the Israman Triathlon. An attorney, he is a tireless advocate for disabled rights and was so excited to run as part of Yachad, an organization that works hard at enhancing the life opportunities of individuals with disabilities, the very same mission to which he has devoted his life. It was a privilege to hear him speak and to have him share inspiration with the entire team.
Another inspirational moment for me came at the end of Shabbos, during Havdalah. As many of the team members were teenagers, I expected them all to race out of the shul the minute Shabbos was over and head straight toward their cell phones/laptops/iPods/cameras/iPads, etc. Much to my surprise, Havdalah was a lengthy and very beautiful ritual that I don’t normally have the pleasure to witness. When it was over, the kids started singing, “Six more days ‘till Shabbos…” and formed a circle, singing and dancing as if they didn’t want Shabbos to end. It was incredibly inspiring.