A suit and a story from a Holocaust survivor


It had been a tough week. The more news I read about the Boston bombing, the less I understood. Who were these young men, full of grievance, using a fresh start in America to maim and kill innocents?

In the midst of the mess, I decided to finally buy myself a new suit. I have just one, which I bought 10 years ago from an elderly Jewish man downtown.

I had a vivid memory of him, but I didn’t know his name. So I called Roger Stuart Clothes on Los Angeles Street and asked if the elderly man with the accent still worked there.

“Max?” the man on the phone said. “No, I’m sorry.”

“I guess I waited too long,” I said. Charming little old men don’t live forever, I thought.

“Just come tomorrow,” the man went on. “Max only works Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.”

Before the man hung up, I just had to ask him: How old was my salesman? Where was the accent from? What’s his story? 

“Max? He’s 94. A Holocaust survivor. From the camps.”

I told him I’d be in that week — for a suit and a story.

“Should we talk, or do you want to first look at suits?” Max Leigh was just like I remembered him: maybe 5-foot-4, sturdy, with a good head of graying hair, a crisp blue dress shirt, gray slacks and a flowered tie. His face was kindly, bespectacled — like a doctor who makes house calls. A Yiddish accent.

Max looked at me: “42 long. What color? Every man should have a navy blue, a black and a gray.”

He handed me a black suit; I tried it on. Perfect. I had him pick me out a shirt, a tie — and I was good for another 10 years. I paid, then Max took me to the back, to a couple of chairs near a dressing room.

I pulled out my notebook and digital recorder.

“Oh, my story,” Max sighed. “I told it to Steven Spielberg. Can you get it from him?”

He was talking, I assumed, about testimony he must have given to the USC Shoah Foundation, which the film director established. I couldn’t understand Max without listening to those testimonial tapes — which I later did — but the tapes, and their sad, brutal memories, only tell part of his story.

Max was born Max Leschgold in Dresden, Germany. When Max was a child, his parents moved with him and his two younger sisters back to their native Warsaw to be with relatives. 

Max was 19 when the Nazis came to Warsaw. He was taken to a series of camps, including Auschwitz. After the war, he learned that his parents had starved to death in the Warsaw Ghetto. One sister died fighting in the ghetto. Another was shot dead in the arms of her boyfriend after their hiding place was discovered.

Max’s Shoah testimony is a recitation of horrors — starvation, mock executions, beatings. On the tapes, he tells the story with distant matter-of-factness. The only time he chokes up is when the interviewer asks whether he ever had children.

“My wife had a child killed by the Nazis,” he finally said. “We have the picture in the other room.” 

With the help of Jewish organizations, Max came to Los Angeles after the war as a penniless refugee who spoke four languages, but not English.

They put him in a hotel in Boyle Heights. He didn’t want to be on welfare, so he took the first job he could, at a fishing line factory. His hopes of a professional education destroyed by the war, he became a machinist, working in the aerospace and computer industries. When he was downsized at the age of 52, he and a friend opened a suit store downtown. 

“I didn’t even know what size suit I wore,” he said. “But I went into business, and I started a company, and I was successful, and here I am.”

Max travelled around the world, including five visits to Israel. He said he has paid back in donations “a thousand times over” whatever money the Jewish organizations donated to help him get on his feet.

After he sold his company, he began working at Roger Stuart, in 1981 — that’s 32 years.

“I don’t need the money,” Max said. “If I wouldn’t like it, I wouldn’t work. I like people.”

Max was married to his first wife, Rosaline, for 54 years — they met just after the war, and she died not long after he made his video testimony in 1997. His second wife, Inna, is 66. Inna’s son and grandchildren are like his own, he said.

“I have family now, I didn’t have any before. I lost my whole family.”

I asked Max how he managed to deal with such terrible memories. Did faith help, I asked, a belief in God?

Max shook his head.

“I saw too much to believe in all that bulls—,” he said. “I had these discussions with rabbis, and they couldn’t give me an answer. You explain to me why 1 1/2 million children got killed without sins. I lost whatever faith I had, and I didn’t have much to start with.”

Yet, Max moved forward. He didn’t lash out. He didn’t stay bitter at having his family and his dreams destroyed. He was 19 when his life fell apart — the same age as one of those Boston bombers — and he rebuilt his life; he stitched it back together like a suit.

“Am I bitter?” Max said. “Yes, however, you can’t live that way all your life. If you’re going to live with it all your life, then you don’t have a life at all.”

There are a million stories in the naked city — and in the fully clothed city, too. 


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Medical examiner keeps private how Boston bombing suspect died


An autopsy on Boston Marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev determined precisely how he died after a bloody shootout with police but the results can't be made public until the body is claimed, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Medical Examiner said on Monday.

FBI agents also spent hours at Tsarnaev's widow's family home in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, and came out carrying bags market DNA samples, a person familiar with the investigation said

Two law enforcement officials said both the FBI and local law enforcement agencies are now looking beyond the Boston area to try to identify associates or possible confederates of Tsarnaev and his younger brother, Dzhokhar. A federal official said that further searches by the FBI or other agencies for physical evidence were also possible.

Authorities and the public have been waiting to learn whether Tamerlan Tsarnaev died in a hail of police bullets or when he was run over by Dzhokhar when the younger Tsarnaev fled in an SUV they had stolen.

“The Medical Examiner has determined the cause of death,” said Terrel Harris, spokesman for the Massachusetts Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, but added that these findings will not be made public until the body is claimed and a death certificate is filed.

Tsarnaev's widow, Katherine Russell, would be permitted to claim the body from the medical examiner but she has been in hiding at her family's home. She was seen leaving the house Monday afternoon with her lawyers and was later seen leaving her lawyer's offices in Providence, Rhode Island.

Police said the Tsarnaevs set off twin bombs on April 15 that ripped through the crowd near the marathon's finish line, killing three and injuring 264. The Tsarnaevs led police in a wild car chase through metropolitan Boston three days later, throwing grenades and exchanged gunfire as the officers closed in.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev had stepped outside the SUV to shoot at police when he was hit by gunfire and was run over by his brother when the younger Tsarnaev escaped. He was pronounced dead at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Dzhokhar, 19, was captured on April 19 and has been recovering from bullet wounds at a prison medical center outside Boston.

Russell said through her lawyer last week that she was doing everything she could do assist officials with the investigation.

Her lawyers have not said anything else, but a person familiar with the matter said they have been negotiating how much access officials will have to their client.

Russell, 24, lived with Tamerlan Tsarnaev and their young daughter in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Police have said they found bomb material in that apartment.

Her lawyers have said she didn't know much because she spent most of her time working as a health aide near Boston while her husband was at home watching the child.

The brothers' parents, now living in Russia, said on Sunday that they have abandoned initial plans to come to the United States to claim their older son's body and visit their younger son.

Additional reporting by Aaron Pressman in Providence, Rhode Island, and Mark Hosenball in Washingbton; Editing by Philip Barbara

My cousin Bruce: a Boston hero


When the first bomb went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, Bruce Mendelsohn was partying in an office overlooking Boylston Street. The blast knocked him off of his seat. 

“Get everybody away from the window,” Bruce yelled to his brother, who had finished the marathon about an hour earlier. “There might be a secondary.” 

Then the second bomb went off. 

Bruce, 44, is my second cousin, and in the hours and days after the April 15 attack in Boston, he became the go-to guy for news outlets trying to make sense of the incident. He was both uninjured and articulate in describing the aftermath of the explosions. The fact that he’s a PR professional with an active Twitter account certainly helped reporters find him. 

But the most significant reason Bruce was key to stories in The New York Times and on CNN, ABC and other outlets around the world — doing what he calls “therapy-by-media” — is because he ran down the stairs and into the street, toward the smoke, toward the injured. 

Even before many first responders could arrive at the scene, Bruce had helped reunite a distraught — but unhurt — mother with her son, who also survived. He helped an EMT roll a seriously wounded woman from on top of another victim. And using a T-shirt, he tied a tourniquet around a college student’s leg, which, her doctors later told her, probably save her life. 

“I don’t know what my thought process was,” Bruce told me by phone a little more than a week after the attack, which left three dead and injured more than 260. 

Bruce told me he couldn’t really explain why he ran toward the carnage, which he described on Twitter that day as “like a scene from Tel Aviv or Pakistan or Baghdad, not Boston.” 

“I guess it had something to do with the way I was brought up,” he said. 

I’ve known Bruce all my life. At Passover seders and various family gatherings, Bruce and his two brothers always seemed to be laughing and having an even better time than anyone else. I usually try to find a seat on their side of the table. 

But Bruce has never been a particularly observant Jew. His day school career ended before I was born, cut short when his school asked him to leave. At my bar mitzvah, just a few months after he completed three years in the U.S. Army, Bruce sported a camouflage kippah that looked like it had seen only occasional use. And when I got married, his wife jokingly told my wife that our wedding was livelier than the WASPy ones she was used to. 

So I was somewhat surprised when Bruce confided that he had been thinking about the Jewish context of what he did during the 12 minutes he spent on Boylston Street that Monday before police told him and other unofficial responders to leave. 

“I didn’t do it as a Jew, but if I look back at it, I think there was something implicit in my faith that said to me, when people need help, you help them,” he said. 

When I reached him on his cell phone on April 23, Bruce had just left Tufts Medical Center, where he was visiting Victoria McGrath, the 20-year-old Northeastern University student whose wounded leg he treated. He’d come at the invitation of the “Today” show, which had reunited him and McGrath for the show — along with firefighter Jimmy Plourde, who carried McGrath to safety; Tyler Dodd, who helped calm her while she was being treated in a medical tent on the scene; and former Navy medic Alicia Shambo, who rode in the ambulance with her to the hospital. 

“The doctor told me, if you hadn’t have done that, then I would have died,” McGrath told Bruce, as NBC’s cameras rolled. “You saved my life. Otherwise, I would have bled out, ’cause it hit the artery.”

If the marathon bombings changed McGrath’s life — she might walk again without a limp, according to the NBC report — they also changed Bruce’s. He says he now becomes emotional at unpredictable times, and he feels very angry when he thinks about the terrorists who carried out the attack. 

But also, in a strange way, Bruce said, the experience has also given him a deeper understanding of himself — as a person, as a human being and as a Jew. 

“As Jews, we talk a lot and we study a lot about pikuach nefesh,” Bruce told me, using the Hebrew term for the rabbinic imperative that permits a person to violate almost any Jewish law in order to save a person’s life. “I can hold my own in a conversation about Jewish liturgy, but I think there’s a difference between Judaism in theory and Judaism in action.” 

What is Judaism in action?

“The guys in Israel who go in after bombings and clean up the friggin’ messes” are one example, Bruce said. 

Bruce may continue to sometimes take a pass on synagogue services, as he has in the past. But as Rabbi Shai Held, co-founder, dean and chair in Jewish thought at New York educational institution Mechon Hadar, wrote in a post for Tablet the day after the attack, running down the stairs when most everyone is, quite rationally, heading the other way, represents the best of Jewish practice. 

“You want to serve God? Run towards the very people and places you most want to run away from,” Held wrote. “You want to be religious? Learn to be present for other people when they are in pain. All the rest is commentary.”

Rabbi leads interfaith service at Boston Marathon bombing site


About 100 people attended a rabbi-led interfaith service for the victims of the Boston Marathon attack at the site of the bombing.

Rabbi Howard Berman of the Central Reform Temple in Boston led the short service of prayer and songs for runners, marathon volunteers and first responders at the race's finish line on Boylston Street, WBUR radio in Boston reported.

“In whatever way we sing, in whatever way we pray, may we go forth in the spirit of shalom, of wholeness, of healing, and of peace,” Berman said.

Central Reform Temple and five area churches organized the service.

Israel at 65


I watched the video of the Boston Marathon bombings and thought, of course, of the bus bombings that wracked Jerusalem and Tel Aviv a decade ago. The mundane calm violently shattered. The screams giving way to sirens. The bodies sprawled on the ground. And the smoke — movies never show how much smoke explosions really cause, because there would be too much to see anything.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one making these associations.

Dr. Alasdair Conn is chief of emergency services at Massachusetts General Hospital, where at least 22 of the severely wounded victims were rushed.

“This is like a bomb explosion we hear about in Baghdad or Israel or other tragic points in the world,” Conn told The New York Times.

The way Dr. Conn put it jarred me. Sixty-five years after its founding, Israel is vibrant, creative, tough, embattled, intense, exhausting — but tragic? Nope.

It’s not because enemies, like the terrorist or terrorists who attacked Boston, haven’t tried for years to reduce Israel to a nation of blood and tears. Just since the Second Intifada, the terror death toll of Israeli Jews and Arabs has topped 1,000. In the latest attack, in July of last year, a Hezbollah bomb planted on a bus full of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria claimed six lives.

Numbers don’t begin to reveal the human agony behind each of these attacks. Beyond the casualties and their anguished loved ones, there are the wounded, who bear the scars for life. Israel has known tragedy, and how.

But Israel — as a nation, as a set of ideals, as a population within its (somewhat iffy) borders — continues to thrive. If any one word could describe Israel, it would not be tragic. It would be resilient.

Research now shows that people who fare best in life are ones who’ve undergone some adversity — not too much, and not too little.

“In our trauma-focused age,” psychologist Anthony Mancini writes,we sometimes lose sight of our innate capacity to endure. We seem to assume that ‘traumatic events’ must result in ‘trauma.’ And yet the research tells us the opposite. Most people cope with the worst things with only modest and transient disruptions in functioning.”

By that measure, Israel was forged in just the right degree of adversity.

The sites of some of the worst terror attacks in modern history bear no lasting signs. Israeli leaders made a decision early on to restore attack sites to normality as soon as possible. The message that sends is the same as what grass reminds each time you mow it — “we’ll be right back.” All that marks the place is a plaque or some kind of permanent memorial — because preserving memory of sacrifice is also a way of ensuring resilience.

Israel’s economy has a kind of unplanned resilience — not relying on any one commodity or industry, but constantly inventing new ones. So, too, its agriculture, which has moved from simply growing stuff to engineering the finest ways to breed, plant, irrigate, harvest, process and ship produce. Dozens of other countries can grow cheaper potatoes, but all over Europe you’ll pay six bucks a kilo for Israel’s Avshalom brand.

Part of this resilience is born of an innate restlessness. But it also comes from being not just a country, but a People. As Gidi Grinstein, founder of the Israeli think tank Re’ut has pointed out, Jewish longevity and success is in large part due precisely to worldwide networks of communities that could grow when others shrank, or disappeared, that could help when others were hurting.

“A secret of Jewish survival, security and prosperity over centuries of exile has been its geographic spread among nations, cultures and languages,” Grinstein writes.

Israel was supposed to herald the Ingathering of the Exiles, when the far-flung Jews, called, disdainfully, the galut, would all drop their briefcases and flock to Zion.

Thankfully, our innate sense of resilience kept us from doing exactly that. Israel grew strong and has prospered by drawing on the talents and resources and experiences of Jews, non-Jewish friends and, yes, former Israelis throughout the world.

The last Israeli election, which saw the ascendancy of parties informed by a more open — that is a more American-Jewish — approach to Judaism is a good indicator of how Israel’s future also depends on the strength and ideas of outside Jewish communities. It doesn’t just take a village, it takes a web — or, to be geeky about it, it takes an interconnected network.

What binds these networks together is a common story, a shared narrative of struggle, endurance, redemption. That story has enabled Israel, in the words of the late Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, to emerge “stronger than before from the test of fire and blood.” That story has been both a source of hope, and its fuel.

Because, really, what is resilience but a fancy word for hope — HaTikvah. And if we lost that — now that would be tragic.

Marathon bomb suspect eludes police, hunt shuts Boston down


Black Hawk helicopters and heavily armed police descended on a Boston suburb Friday in a massive search for an ethnic Chechen suspected in the Boston Marathon bombings, hours after his brother was killed by police in a late-night shootout.

The normally traffic-clogged streets of Boston were empty as the city went into virtual lockdown after a bloody night of shooting and explosions. Public transport was suspended, air space restricted and famous universities, including Harvard and MIT, closed after police ordered residents to remain at home.

Officials identified the hunted man as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, and the dead suspect as his brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, who was killed Thursday night in the working class suburb of Watertown.

Details emerged on Friday about the brothers, including their origins in the predominantly Muslim regions of Russia's Caucasus, which have experienced two decades of violence since the fall of the Soviet Union.

The fugitive described himself on a social network as a minority from a region that includes Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia.

A man who said he was their uncle said the brothers came to the United States in the early 2000s and settled in the Cambridge, Massachusetts, area.

“I say what I think what's behind it – being losers,” Ruslan Tsarni told reporters in suburban Washington. “Not being able to settle themselves and thereby hating everyone who did.”

Tsarni said he had not spoken to the brothers since 2009.

He said Monday's bombings on the finish line of the world-famous Boston Marathon that killed three people and injured 176 “put a shame on our family. It put a shame on the entire Chechen ethnicity.”

The bombing, described by President Barack Obama as “an act of terrorism,” was the worst such attack on U.S. soil since the plane hijackings of Sept. 11, 2001.

The FBI said the twin blasts were caused by bombs in pressure cookers and carried in backpacks that were left near the marathon finish line as thousands of spectators gathered.

Authorities cordoned off a section of the suburb of Watertown and told residents not to leave their homes or answer the door as officers in combat gear scoured a 20-block area for the missing man, who was described as armed and dangerous.

The manhunt has covered 60 percent to 70 percent of the search area, Massachusetts State Police Colonel Timothy Alben said Friday afternoon. “We are progressing through this neighborhood, going door-to-door, street-to-street,” he said.

Two Black Hawk helicopters circled the area. Amtrak said it was suspending train service between Boston and New York indefinitely and the Boston Red Sox postponed Friday night's baseball game at historic Fenway Park.

The events elicited a response from Moscow condemning terrorism and from the Russian-installed leader of Chechnya, who criticized police in Boston for killing an ethnic Chechen and blamed the violence on his upbringing in the United States.

“They grew up and studied in the United States and their attitudes and beliefs were formed there,” Ramzan Kadyrov said in comments posted online. “Any attempt to make a connection between Chechnya and the Tsarnaevs is in vain.”

INTERNET POSTINGS

The brothers had been in the United States for several years and were believed to be legal immigrants, according to U.S. government sources. Neither had been known as a potential security threat, a law enforcement official said on Friday.

A Russian language social networking site bearing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's name paid tribute to Islamic websites and to those calling for Chechen independence. The author identified himself as a 2011 graduate of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, a public school in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

He said he went to primary school in Makhachkala, capital of Dagestan, a province in Russia that borders on Chechnya, and listed his languages as English, Russian and Chechen.

His “World view” was listed as “Islam” and his “Personal priority” as “career and money.”

He posted links to videos of fighters in Syria's civil war and to Islamic web pages with titles such as “Salamworld, my religion is Islam” and “There is no God but Allah, let that ring out in our hearts.”

He also had links to pages calling for independence for Chechnya, a region of Russia that lost its bid for independence after two wars in the 1990s.

Video posted on NJ.com showed a woman, Alina Tsarnaeva, who described herself as a sister of the suspects.

“I'm not OK, just like anyone else is not OK,” she told reporters from behind the closed door of an apartment in West New York, New Jersey.

She said the older brother “was a great person. He was a kind and loving man. To piss life away, just like he pissed others' life away … “

She said of the younger brother, “He's a child.”

HOUSE-TO-HOUSE SEARCH

In Watertown, the lockdown cleared the streets for police, who raced from one site to the next. The events stunned the former mill town, which has a large Russian-speaking community.

During the night, a university police officer was killed, a transit police officer was wounded, and the suspects carjacked a vehicle before leading police on a chase that led to Tamerlan Tsarnaev being shot dead.

“During the exchange of the gunfire, we believe that one of the suspects was struck and ultimately taken into custody,” Alben said.

The suspect died of multiple injuries including gunshot wounds and trauma, said Dr. Richard Wolfe, chief of emergency medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

The older brother was seen wearing a dark cap and sunglasses in surveillance images released by the FBI on Thursday. The younger Tsarnaev was shown wearing a white cap in the pictures, taken shortly before Monday's explosions.

“We believe this to be a terrorist,” said Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis. “We believe this to be a man who has come here to kill people. We need to get him in custody.”

Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball, Alex Dobuzinskis, David Bailey, Peter Graff, Stephanie Simon, Svea Herbst-Bayliss, Aaron Pressman, Daniel Lovering and Ben Berkowitz; Writing by Daniel Trotta and Grant McCool; Editing by Doina Chiacu

Obama in Boston vows U.S. will find perpetrators of bombings


“You will run again,” President Barack Obama told an interfaith service on Thursday for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, in a stirring speech aimed at bringing solace to the city and settling the nerves of a rattled nation.

At a Boston cathedral about a mile from the spot where two bombs on Monday ripped through the crowds at the marathon finish line, killing three people and injuring 176, Obama sought to convey strength by vowing “we will find you” to the person or people behind the attack.

Monday's bombing began a week of security scares that rattled the United States and evoked memories of the Sept. 11, 2001 hijacked plane attacks, ranging from false bomb reports to mail sent to the White House and other federal officials containing the deadly poison ricin.

Investigators in the Texas town of West were looking into the cause of an explosion on Wednesday night at a fertilizer plant that killed up to 15 people and destroyed dozens of homes.

Some of the victims of the Boston attack suffered gruesome injuries, and at least 10 lost limbs as a result of the blasts. Investigators believe the bombs were made of pressure cookers packed with shrapnel.

“As you begin this long journey of recovery, your city is with you, your commonwealth is with you, your country is with you,” Obama said. “We will all be with you as you learn to stand and walk and, yes, run again. Of that, I have no doubt. You will run again.”

Hundreds of people crowded outside the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston's South End. Police were out in force, and some officers listened to Obama's speech over the radio while standing next to their squad cars.

Among them was Philip Beauregard of Boston, who said, “The president was fantastic. He made it clear that the country is behind the city of Boston.”

After his speech, Obama met with volunteers and Boston Marathon organizers, many of whom cared for the injured, and with victims at Massachusetts General Hospital.

'WE WILL FIND YOU'

While investigators have made no arrests yet, Obama said of the perpetrator or perpetrators of the attack, “We will find you and you will face justice.”

Investigators are combing through thousands of pieces of evidence, from cell phone pictures submitted by spectators to shards of shrapnel pulled from the legs of victims.

They have not identified any suspects but they want to talk to two men who they have identified in images taken before the blast, law enforcement and national security officials said on Thursday.

“There is some video that has raised the question of those that the FBI would like to speak with,” said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said at a hearing in Congress on Thursday. “I wouldn't characterize them as suspects under the technical term. But we do need the public's help in locating these individuals.”

Police had considered making an appeal to the public for more information at a news conference on Wednesday, a U.S. government source said, but the FBI canceled it after a number of delays. The FBI said on Thursday it will issue new information on the case at a 5 p.m. ET (2100 GMT) briefing.

The bombs in Boston killed an 8-year-old boy, Martin Richard; a 29-year-old woman, Krystle Campbell; and a Boston University graduate student and Chinese citizen, Lu Lingzi.

Before his visit, Obama declared a state of emergency in Massachusetts, a move that makes federal funding available to the state as it copes with the aftermath of the bombing.

Boston Mayor Tom Menino, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Cardinal Sean O'Malley also spoke at the service. Former Massachusetts Governor and 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney also attended.

“This is Boston, a city with courage, compassion and strength that knows no bounds,” said Menino, who was rolled to the podium in a wheelchair but stood for his remarks despite breaking a leg over the weekend. “We love the brave ones who felt the blast and still raced through the smoke with ringing in his ears … to answer cries of those in need.”

Additional reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss and Daniel Lovering in Boston, Deborah Charles, Mark Hosenball and Roberta Rampton in Washington; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Grant McCool

‘Running Rabbi’ recounts chaos at Boston Marathon, vows to run in next year’s race


“It was a beautiful day. I was so excited to run and having such a good run. The crowd was unbelievable. The whole experience was amazing. It was almost magical.”

That’s how the Boston Marathon began for Rabbi Benjamin David, head rabbi at Adath Emanu-El in Mount Laurel, N.J. It’s not how it ended.

David, 36, had completed the marathon and was back at his hotel when the twin explosions went off Monday afternoon near the finish line. The apparent terrorist attack killed at least three people, including an 8-year-old boy, and wounded more than 140, some critically.

David was running with Rabbi Scott Weiner, senior rabbi of Temple Israel of New Rochelle in suburban New York's Westchester County. The two rabbinical school friends are co-founders of the national organization The Running Rabbis, which encourages clergy — Jewish and not — and their congregants to run. They always run for a charity and their race in the Boston Marathon raised money for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute.

David had an additional motivation for running. Although he had run 20 half-marathons and 13 marathons, David had never run the Boston Marathon and he wanted to beat his personal best time of 3 hours, 23 minutes. After 10 months of training, he did just that, running the 26.2 miles in 3 hours, 21 minutes. Weiner was one minute ahead of him.

From his hotel room two blocks from the blast site, David explained Monday night what happened next.

“Usually at these big races, it takes a while to exit the area because you pick up the medal and your tote bag and shuffle along because you are so tired,” David said. “Getting out of the finish area took us at least a half hour. We went to the hotel, and I was about to put my hand on the door to go into the lobby when I heard a massive explosion. It was an extraordinary sound. You knew instantly that something was wrong.”

David knew what kind of wrong that was. He was in Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, blocks away from the World Trade Center at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Rabbi Benjamin David, having finished the Boston Marathon earlier, was at his hotel room two blocks from the site of the two bombs when they exploded. (Courtesy Rabbi Benjamin David)

“In my mind, I instantly compared it to when I was in New York on 9/11,” he said. “I mean, it was a different sound. But when the first plane hit the tower, it was a sound like a sound you don’t normally hear. That’s what this was today. A sound that you don’t normally hear and your brain says, ‘Is something wrong?’ Then today when we heard the second bomb, like when there was the second plane on 9/11. Then we knew for sure that something was very wrong.

“People were running toward the scene and away from the scene,” David said. “Police were scrambling. The hardest part is that no one knew what happened, so you don’t know what to do. We thought maybe the grandstand had collapsed, or a building. I grabbed someone, and he said that two bombs went off.

“I went up to my room and put on the news,” he said. “Isn’t that strange? Here I am, two blocks from the thing, and my instinct is still to turn on the TV to see what happened. But then, from the window in my room, I could see basically everything. So the local news was on and there was confusion and speculation, and I’m looking out the window and looking right at what is being called a terrorist attack.”

Other than using the word “surreal,” David didn’t get into details about what he saw.

“You know one weird thing? They stopped the race in progress,” he said. “I heard on the news that there were supposedly 4,500 people still on the course. I wonder what happened to them. What were they told? What was it like for them, not knowing what was happening?”

Luckily, David’s family did know what was happening with him. Like most other marathoners, he had a chip on his clothes that enabled the tracking of his progress via a secure website.

“I knew that he was finished with the race, and I texted him to see how it went and he texted back, ‘Turn on the news,’ ” said his father, Rabbi Jerome David of Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill, N.J. “I was shaken, even though I knew he was safe. It brought back memories of 9/11 because Ben and his brother John were both very close to the Trade Center that morning and we couldn’t reach either of them. This time, at least I heard from him. But even so, it’s the same feeling. It’s worrying about your child — and I know very well that he is a grown man — but he is my child. And he was again in the middle of danger. And there was nothing I could do about it right then.”

A friend called David’s mother, Peggy, on her cell phone.

“I was on a break from work and had just turned my phone on when a friend called and said, ‘There was a bombing near the finish line,’ ” Peggy David recounted. “I was sure he was done and I know that he usually goes back to the hotel pretty quickly. But I didn’t know exactly where he was when the bomb went off. Then his wife sent out a group text saying that he was OK.”

David’s wife, Lisa, the mother of their three young children, was tracking her husband’s progress and received an immediate text from him about his safety. That was a good thing because within hours she was aboard a plane headed for Israel on a business trip. She is associate director of camping for the Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp and Israel Programs.

Dr. Steve Gitler, president of Adath Emanu-El, found out about the bombing via a text from his daughter.

“She texted, ‘Is Rabbi alright?’ and I answered, ‘What do you mean?’ and she wrote back, ‘There were explosions in Boston.’ I went to CNN.com and read what happened. Then I got the text that Rabbi was OK, and I posted a message on our synagogue’s Facebook page, then sent an email to the board and sent an email to the congregation so that everyone knew he was OK.”

Rabbi Richard Levine, the rabbi emeritus of Adath Emanu-El who led the congregation for more than 46 years, heard the news on KYW-1060 radio.

“I knew that Ben was trying to run the marathon in less than 3 hours and 20 or so minutes, so I thought that he was done and probably safe, but that didn’t mean he was,” Levine said. “We texted back and forth so I knew that he was OK. But I was still very worried for a period of time. You don’t want someone you care about to be in harm’s way.”

In fact, Levine thinks the timing of the bombings was deliberately set to harm as many people as possible. A former distance runner himself, Levine knows how marathons are staged.

“Sometimes in these races, they stagger the start times and have the all-star runners go first, then there is a break, then another class of runners goes and another follows,” he said. “Anyone who did some homework would know that the vast majority of runners — the average runners who are not professionals — finish the Boston Marathon right at about the time that the bombs exploded. At that time, people are crossing the finish line en masse. And these are people who run purely because they love to run and want to be part of the Boston Marathon.

“So were the bombs intentionally set to explode then? Yes, I believe so.”

If there was any blessing in this, Levine said, it was that medical personnel were at the finish line waiting for runners and they immediately helped the injured.

David’s father, who was also a runner, sees other silver linings in the day’s events.

“In a moment, your whole life can change,” he said. “You start off in one direction and then it goes in another. It also reminds you of what is important and that is family, health and friendship. I am a rabbi and lead my congregation, but I am also a father and grandfather and tonight, I needed the support of my congregants. I went to a men’s study group and an executive board meeting and was surrounded by friends and supporters. Rabbis need that, too, you know.”

His son also got the support he needed.

“On my end, people were just remarkably kind and forthcoming,” the younger David said. “My phone has not stopped ringing for seven hours. It’s been calls, texts, Facebook. Everyone knew that I was doing this race. The congregation and my family and friends have been amazingly supportive today.”

But he still had to deal with the logistics of being two blocks from a terrorist attack. And he had just run 26.2 miles. He was hungry after the race, but when he tried to get something to eat in the hotel lobby, the police came in and “kicked us out of the hotel because they didn’t want large crowds gathering. They wouldn’t let me back in, even though I said that I was a guest.”

So he went to the house of his wife’s college roommate three or four blocks from the hotel and took refuge there for an hour, he said, before returning to the hotel.

“And then again I realized that I forgot to eat,” David said. He went in search of food, encountering a “horrible” scene outside, with barricades and police everywhere. He found an open restaurant,  a Cheesecake Factory, where there was an hour wait for seating. So he took something to go and returned to his hotel room.

David described his state just hours after the attack as” feeling dazed.”

“My body is, like, exhausted. Annihilated. The marathon is so emotional and you spend so much time preparing,” he said. “God willing it goes well and it’s an accomplishment. And I do feel that accomplishment. But then, there are people who died today and they died right outside my window.”

But he also had a different view he was trying to maintain.

“Today, we saw what looks like hate and violence. But what I also saw was a day of togetherness and community and caring and support — much like the Marathon itself,” he said. “Every marathon is about celebrating the human spirit and supporting one another. It’s about people from around the country and around the world, from different backgrounds and different religions running together. That is what I will remember from today, from before the bombing and right after it.

“Tragedy reduces things to the most primal and most important factors,” he said. “Family, friends, community and what strangers need help.”

In the attacks both on 9/11 and on Monday, he said, “we will see the best in humanity come out.”

“And one more thing: I will run the Boston Marathon next year,” David said. “Nothing will keep me from it.”

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