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The holiness of the long-distance runner

The rabbi will be at Sunday's Race for the Cure. He was at the Boston Marathon - and 9/11.

Running Rabbi Benjamin David stands outside the sanctuary of Adath Emanu-El, the congregation he leads in Mount Laurel, N.J.

STU BYKOFSKY/ Daily News Staff
Running Rabbi Benjamin David stands outside the sanctuary of Adath Emanu-El, the congregation he leads in Mount Laurel, N.J. STU BYKOFSKY/ Daily News StaffRead moreStu Bykofsky

NOT MANY people were eyewitness to both lethal jihadi attacks on America - 9/11 and the Boston Marathon.

Benjamin David was and wonders why - what is God's message to him?

He thinks in terms of heavenly messages being sent - God doesn't IM or tweet - because David is a rabbi, the senior rabbi of Congregation Adath Emanu-El in Mount Laurel.

In 2001, he was a third-year student in a graduate rabbinical school a few blocks from the World Trade Center and remembers hearing the scream of the first jet flying over, very low.

Twelve years later he was in Boston, where he had just finished his first Boston Marathon, when he heard two loud explosions. Moments later, downtown Boston was in chaos, with screams, cries and the wail of police and ambulance sirens.

Minutes later he was in his hotel room, calling to let his wife and three young children, and his congregation, know he was safe.

"I am trying to make sense of the fact I was in both places," the 36-year-old rabbi tells me as we sit in his office at Adath Emanu-El, where he has been the spiritual leader for almost a year.

In both scenes, one emotion was a common denominator, he says. "It was the fear of the unknown. You didn't know what else was coming."

Fear can be paralyzing or energizing. It conquers you or you conquer it.

In Boston, the bombs exploded seconds after David crossed the finish line, exhausted but happy with his personal best time of 3 hours, 21 minutes. He had run in 13 previous marathons.

David feels tension between telling his Boston story publicly, which is a civic obligation, and personal healing, which is emotionally necessary. His goal is to find "the appropriate message."

He had already signed up for his first Broad Street Run last Sunday. Despite Boston, or maybe because of Boston, he ran and says the race was "a true celebration of our city and the resilience of the running community." He is comfortable calling Philly his city because he was born in Center City before his family moved to Cherry Hill, where he grew up.

He will be back in Philly this Sunday to run in the Komen Race for the Cure.

Why? There are several reasons.

The rabbi says because his running is "selfish" - it takes a lot of his time and it is not a team sport - he needs to justify it. "It's important to me that running be connected to important causes."

That's why he and fellow rabbi and runner Scott Weiner created the nonprofit Running Rabbis in 2005, just before their first New York City Marathon.

It is a virtual community spread all over the country, open to all members of the clergy. The Running Rabbis Facebook page describes it as "Making the world a better place one step at a time."

David says the rabbis "run for positive causes," such as raising money for scholarships, to combat autism, to fund soup kitchens, to oppose domestic violence and to fight breast cancer, which brings David to the Komen race.

His father, Jerome, a rabbi and a runner who's on the Philadelphia board of the Susan G. Komen Foundation, will deliver the prerace invocation and David will receive what he calls the "tremendous honor" of offering a prayer for the Boston runners.

It was not written when we spoke, but the theme will be "to celebrate life, and for others to remember."

Perhaps that was God's message to the rabbi.

Phone: 215-854-5977

On Twitter: @StuBykofsky