By Yakira Cohen
When this year’s New York City Marathon was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, Kelly Blavatt, runner and Chizuk Amuno Congregation member, shifted her focus to new terrain: the land of Israel.
She and her family formed a team called The President’s PAC and set out to compete in her synagogue’s summerlong exercise competition.
“The timing was perfect to stay inspired and be active and keep the mileage up while doing something fun and as part of the community, but also something to share with our boys,” she said.
Blavatt is joined by about 30 fellow congregation members spanning 13 or 14 teams to participate in Chizuk Amuno’s Walk, Run or Bike Across Israel event, according to Arielle Miller, the synagogue’s summer programming coordinator. The initiative was created by Miller and Chizuk Amuno Rabbi Deborah Wechsler, who wanted to strengthen congregants’ connections to Israel, promote exercise and build community, following the pandemic’s cancellation of summer trips to Israel.
“We wanted to find a way to connect to Israel even if they couldn’t actually physically travel there,” said Wechsler. “We knew that a lot of people were outside and were exercising during lockdown for coronavirus and we wanted to encourage that and find a way to use it to build community.”
From July 1 through Labor Day, individuals and teams participate by exercising across miles of Baltimore, which represent miles across Israel.
Different distances reflect the different distances in the country, such as the 85 miles across the country’s width. Blavatt is optimistic her team will reach 290 miles, representing Israel’s length.
“I’m comfortable that we will get our miles in,” she said. “We printed a map and looked at what it looked like. It’s been a great way to talk about Israel with our children, but also to look at it geographically and see how narrow it is as a country and how long it is, and to see the distance that we’ve covered.”
The congregation has collectively logged more than 630 miles, according to Miller, far exceeding their initial goal to cover the length of Israel. The Kfar Blum team currently leads with 175 miles biked.
Only July 24, anyone who has logged activity is invited to a “7th inning stretch” drive-by to pick up a mid-summer goodie bag with Israeli treats such as Bamba and Bazooka, according to Miller. Prizes will be awarded here and at the end of the summer to teams who have the most miles, most creative team names, best photos and win in other categories, according to their Facebook page.
“Those will be highlights because people miss each other,” said Miller. “Even to drive by and wave will be fun.”
Although the initiative allows fellow congregation members to reconnect to some capacity, many miss some of the real togetherness that being part of a synagogue usually fosters.
“You’re almost doing it in a vacuum,” said Blavatt. “It’s super fun to be motivated as a family and to log the miles and to look at how we’ve gone on the map, but we want to be with our community, and just be able to participate in events with other members of Chizuk Amuno in person.”
Wechsler agreed, saying that participants typically complete their miles at their own paces and own times. However, she is grateful when she does get to see her congregants out and about, if even from afar.
“Sometimes now when I’m out on my daily walks, I’ll see other members of the congregation who will tell me, ‘Oh, we’re walking to Eilat today,’ or ‘We walked as far as the airport.’”
Chizuk Amuno members have been enthused to participate following months of isolation at home.
“There’s a bit of a sense that people are sort of ‘Zoomed out’ after a number of months of Zoom,” said Wechsler. “It’s been really nice to have a different way to connect that’s not online and it’s out in the natural world.”
No matter what exercise participants choose to log, and no matter what their progress is, one thing is certain: Chizuk Amuno members have found a way to shed their stay-at-home lives in a safe and meaningful way.
“It was a really fun and creative way to keep people moving throughout the summer, but also have a connection to the land of Israel,” said Blavatt. “It’s a fun project for a time when we can’t physically be traveling or physically be together, but still have the opportunity to participate in the same activity.”
Yakira Cohen is a journalism and psychology student at the Honors College of the University of Maryland, College Park.