Shaindy Dahan, a wife and mother from the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn recently completed the Berlin Marathon on September 16. This race proved to be charged with emotion and filled with deep significance. In addition to the euphoria and exhaustion that accompanies running 26.2 miles, as the petite woman ran down the Unter den Linden, the last street that led to the finish line, she saw the Brandenburg Gate ahead, one of the best-known landmarks in Germany and the spot where Hitler was known to have addressed the masses and rallied his troops during the Second World War. Seconds before crossing the line, Dahan, the granddaughter of four Holocaust survivors, pulled an Israeli flag from her pocket and waved it over her head. “It was my way of saying, you tried to destroy us, but we’re still here. Am Yisroel Chai.”
Born in Miami to Rabbi Yankey (Yaacov) and Mrs. Suey Orimland, the family moved to T’sfat, Israel right before Shaindy was a bat mitzvah. After her marriage to Shaul Dahan in 2004, the couple moved to Crown Heights. Running in marathons was the furthest thing from the young woman’s mind. But four years ago, a reunion with a childhood friend who was now the mother of a special needs child changed all that. Upon learning the many ways her friend’s child benefits from the services provided by the Friendship Circle in their Crown Heights community, “I was moved to do something to help,” Dahan said.
“As I listened to what was being said, I knew running was definitely something out of reach for me. But all of that changed when I met her son with special needs. Then I forgot about all of my doubts and my various objections. All I wanted to do was get involved.”
In fact, she signed up that very night. “It didn’t go so well,” she laughs, remembering her first steps in this journey. “The next day I went out to start trying to run. I was only trying to run one block and found that way too difficult. I told my husband there was no way I could do this race. But he said, ‘You signed up for a cause, and you can figure it out. Keep the image of that beautiful boy in your head and remember why you signed up. Remember the cause.’”
That support and encouragement worked, and the next day she kept the child’s image in mind, doubled her efforts, and ran two blocks. And the next day she doubled her efforts yet again, and the ground she covered grew and grew.
“My first race was for Friendship Circle in 2015 in Miami. I did a half marathon that day, running 13.1 miles, and since then I’ve run for them every year.” Dahan has competed in other marathons since that first race, in addition to the one in Berlin, and is looking forward to completing her 14th full marathon in November.
“But my fire, my drive, what keeps me going, is running for Friendship Circle. Since the people running on our teams are raising money for their local Friendship Circle, it helps ensure children with special needs get the services the organization provides them.
“My kids, aged 12, 10, and 6, get excited every time I’m in a race. It’s so important to me that they understand and respect that children with special needs deserve a life like other kids. They truly appreciate that these children deserve a life filled with activities and services just like other kids.” Dahan believes it also helps her children feel blessed for their own lives and for what they have. “It’s a way for them to be sensitive to others while also helping them not to take anything for granted.”
Emotions often run deep on many levels. “My parents thought it was a crazy idea to go to Germany when I was first accepted to run in the Berlin Marathon,” Dahan explained. “There was a lot of blood shed there, and I understood how they felt as the children of survivors. But I wanted to do something to proclaim my unshakable belief that although they tried to put an end to us, the Jewish people are here to stay.” She believes her grandparents would be very proud of her, as are her parents, and would be amazed by her journey and the significance of her running the Berlin Marathon.
“I really stand out in the crowd,” Dahan admitted. “I don’t dress like a typical runner, but like an Orthodox woman. Regardless of the heat, I wear a skirt that covers my knees, long sleeves and longer pants. And I run wearing a sheitel!”
There is historical precedent to using the Brandenburg Gate to make a statement. It wasn’t just Hitler who addressed the masses there, its also where President Kennedy proclaimed, “Ich bin ein Berliner” in 1963, a quote thought to be part of the best-known speech of the Cold War.
Dahan finished the race in a place of deep significance and emotion; she used it as an opportunity to share her message and raise her voice. It was more than just a personal experience for her, but one that has meaning for all of us. Raising the Israeli flag there was a symbol of the survival of the Jewish people.
Yet, she admits that even she was surprised at the significance her symbolic gesture carried. “Truthfully, I had not expected to feel so moved by it, but waving the Israeli flag in the same spot that Hitler used to rally against us was really an emotionally charged moment, and one I will never forget.”