Aliyah: The Uphill Marathon

Photo credit: NCSY Israel
Photo credit: NCSY Israel

It’s about halfway through the 10K track of the Jerusalem Marathon. Running on the light rail line, the city shops on Yaffo Street drastically transform into a majestic new view. There, just as you pass Jerusalem’s City Hall, you catch that first glimpse of those ancient stones- the Old City of Jerusalem is just ahead. The sight of those timeless outer walls motivates you as you run; it is almost a religious experience. You are running to a place of holiness, a place of our history and of our destiny. For a moment, you step out of the pain in your already tired calves, and into the internal experience of the heart: one of wonder, and awe, at the incredible nature of this moment. How amazing it is to see this ancient city come alive with thousands of runners traversing its streets, pulsing its veins.

As you make it down past Mamilla, it comes time to turn the corner and complete the U-turn up into Yaffo Gate and your burning calves shout for your attention once again, pulling you out of the moment and back into the reality of your running. This is one of the steepest inclines of the race. Under your feet is cobblestone, never a comfortable running surface, and dangerously slippery in the rain. If you are not careful, you can fall. Yet again, there is a voice that pushes you to keep going. But this time, it is not an internal voice. At the top of the hill there is a marathon booth, one of many throughout the race, with music blasting and the sound of an announcer- “Alufim atem! Look what champions you are! Well done! You can do it, keep going!” That voice of encouragement doesn’t remove the practical pain and discomfort. But it helps drown it out and reminds you why all the effort is worthwhile.

While I’ve run in the Jerusalem Marathon many times, this year’s run was especially meaningful for me. This was the first year I ran with TEAM NCSY, supporting NCSY Israel in helping teen olim settle and integrate in Israel. When I took the position of Development Director for NCSY Israel nearly three years ago, I was excited about the responsibility of leading their team in the Jerusalem Marathon. In November of 2019, we opened registration and started to recruit. Come March, and we had almost 50 runners signed up. We put in orders and worked on the logistics, never expecting what happened next: a country-wide shut down and the cancelation of the Jerusalem Marathon.

Fast forward to the day before the 2022 Jerusalem marathon. For the past months we have been gearing up for TEAM NCSY to finally return and run in the race. Everything is set. We have picked up the running bibs and stuffed all the personalized swag bags. The pasta dinner is scheduled for that night. Then we receive the notice: due to safety concerns with the oncoming storm, the Jerusalem Municipality is not allowing any organization to put up a tent in Gan Sacher. Teams will have no meeting place for their runners in the pouring rain. I sent a message to our head staff: “marathon might be off…” Yet somehow, we pulled together a Plan B and found a location near the finish line to serve as a warm hub for our team away from the rain, both before and after their run. We were not going to cancel TEAM NCSY again this year. But would our runners come out in the rain? Would it be safe? Would they regret this whole experience? It was the morning after the clocks changed and we were losing an hour of sleep. Would teens even show up on time, so early in the morning? A call comes from one of our runners a minute before 7am on Friday. He is outside the front door. Close to 30 runners ran for TEAM NCSY in the cold pouring rain. And despite the gloomy weather, everyone had a positive attitude and an incredible experience they were glad to be a part of.

So, I finally got to run with TEAM NCSY. Heading up that incline into the Old City I realized the importance of what we do at NCSY Israel. While there is always a certain magic or euphoria to Aliyah, practically it is a steep hill to climb and there are obstacles to overcome. Especially for our teens, finding new friends and navigating a new school and community can be as hard as running on slippery cobblestone. If not careful people can fall and get hurt. But NCSY Israel is there at the top, blasting music and screaming- “Alufim atem! Look what champions you are! Well done! You can do it, keep going!” While our voice of encouragement might not remove the practical challenges of moving to Israel, we at NCSY Israel are committed to making it easier for every new teen that comes off the plane, and to constantly remind them why it’s worth the effort. We are here for you. Alufim atem! You can do it!

About the Author
Gavriel Novick, also known as Gaby, is the Director of Regional Development at NCSY Israel and the Coordinator for Machon Lev’s International Program. Gaby has worked in development positions for a number of years, previously at Shalem College in Jerusalem and Perry David Associates, a nonprofit consulting agency in New York.
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