Why is this 62-year-old Irish rabbi running the LA marathon?
Rabbi Moshe Cohen of Pico-Robertson area synagogue Community Shul recently picked up running for his health. This weekend, the 62-year-old Irishman will run for a cause.
After nine months of training, Cohen will trade in his black hat and traditional orthodox attire for black shorts and run the March 19 Los Angeles Marathon to raise funds for his shul’s bar and bat mitzvah program.
“I never really ran anywhere. I guess I ran to the bathroom,” he said of life before his new hobby.
Cohen, who practiced law in Ireland before moving to Los Angeles 30 years ago to become a rabbi, was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes early last year. After his doctor recommended more exercise, he started modestly, with a short run around Circle Park in Beverlywood.
“I thought I was going to die,” Cohen said, drawing chuckles from Community Shul President Saul Blinkoff and Vice President Justin Levi as they sat at The Milky Way, a Pico-Boulevard kosher eatery. “But you just keep going. You just keep doing it. The marathon will be exciting.”
In the final stages of his training for the 26.2-mile race, Cohen has been completing late night runs of 11 miles from his Pico-Robertson home to West Hollywood and back. Distance running, he said, provides a unique tranquility. He doesn’t wear headphones as many runners do. Wearing his yarmulke is enough.
“No music for me. I get this runner’s high that I don’t get in shul when I’m out there,” he said. “It’s peaceful and it gives me time to think.”
Blinkoff, who is encouraging Community Shul members to donate at least a dollar for every mile Cohen runs in the marathon, was mystified when the rabbi came to him with this fundraising idea.
“I thought he was kidding when he first told me,” Blinkoff said. “Seriously, I thought there was no way.”
For Blinkoff, an animator with credits on Disney films including “Pocahontas” and “Tarzan,” disbelief morphed into plans to distribute water cups along the marathon course with Levi and other shul members.
“It’s going to be awesome when he passes us,” Blinkoff said. “It’s amazing that he’s really going to do it. He’s running for the Jewish people, even people who aren’t in his synagogue.”
Blinkoff shot a video that shows Cohen training “Rocky”-style for his upcoming race and sent it out to the community to drum up support.
“Community Shul’s Bar and Bat Mitzvah Experience” program is open to members and unaffiliated Jews alike. Blinkoff said they’re raising funds to bolster marketing, add administrative staff and hire a rabbinical assistant to expand the program’s reach.
“I get this runner’s high that I don’t get in shul when I’m out there. It’s peaceful and it gives me time to think.”
— Rabbi Moshe Cohen
The free program, with a curriculum overseen by Cohen, includes six free once-a-week sessions led by volunteer Jewish community leaders from a variety of fields who will discuss such topics as what it means to be Jewish today, Jewish history and connecting to Israel. Community Shul also partners with the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust to offer one-hour sessions at the museum taught by museum educators.
Participants don’t have to read from the Torah or learn a haftarah portion but must give a speech reflecting on the program at their bar or bat mitzvah service. Families only have to pay for their own party, which they can throw at the synagogue. Community Shul membership isn’t required.
Levi, who teaches Jewish history to bar and bat mitzvahs, said the sessions are meant to be informal and accessible.
“We want to really focus on people who are not members and who don’t go to shul every day,” he said. “It’s not that kind of thing. It’s more about understanding our place in the world and in the community as Jews.”
As an example, Blinkoff brought up his sessions with bar and bat mitzvahs in which he talks about his own work-life balance, illustrating that practicing Judaism isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition.
“I talk openly about how I balance my life as a Hollywood filmmaker,” he said. “I tell them that when Shabbat comes, I spend time with my family and that takes precedence. They talk to me and it shows them that you don’t have to be a rabbi to want to live a Jewish life. Finding your own way to live a Jewish life — that’s what we’re trying to help with.”
So far, only a handful of kids have gone through the program, which began late last year. Cohen said he’d like to see the program grow, particularly among young Jews unaffiliated with a shul.
“We really want things to ramp up, hopefully with more awareness after the marathon and Pesach,” he said. “I’m realistic enough to know that these kids probably aren’t going to change their lives because of the program. But hopefully it will make an impression on them and they’ll look back at it and recall a good experience, a real connection.”
One recent bar mitzvah, Zachary Light, applauded Cohen for using the marathon to expand the program.
“It’s pretty impressive. I’m not going to lie,” he said. “It’s just awesome. I’ve got to give it to him.” n