Local Run for Their Lives chapter remembers the hostages

Local Run for Their Lives chapter remembers the hostages

Walkers carry their signs on a residential street in Woodcliff Lake.
Walkers carry their signs on a residential street in Woodcliff Lake.

“As long as the Israeli hostages remain in captivity in Gaza, we will continue to walk,” Lauren Cherkas of Woodcliff Lake said.

She’s part of her town’s chapter of Run for Their Lives, a group that runs — or to be accurate, walks — every Sunday afternoon to remind the world of the more than 130 hostages still held in Gaza by the Hamas terrorists who abducted them in Israel on October 7.

“Since January 21, a group of us have been gathering every Sunday at 3 p.m. at the corner of Woodland Avenue and Douglas Terrace in Woodcliff Lake,” she said. “We are not marathon runners. Adults and children alike are leisurely and peacefully taking a short 3⁄4 mile walk through a quiet residential thoroughfare to honor the hostages. It takes about 18 minutes.

“Each week there is a different theme; we read a biography of one of the hostages, we are welcome to wear Run for Their Lives t-shirts, we sing Oseh Shalom or Hatikvah, we say Acheinu, a prayer for captives,” she continued. “Most of us hold Israeli flags or carry flags of the countries whose citizens are among the hostages or wear a poster on our backs with a photo of one of the kidnapped hostages. To gain traction and interest in this peaceful cause, we shoot videos or photos of the weekly event and spread the word on both the Run for Their Lives Facebook page and on our personal social media pages.”

In January, the group gathered for its first walk.

These walks are part of an international grassroots effort, Ms. Cherkas said. There are now about 200 independent groups worldwide associated with RFTL. “The Run for Their Lives Facebook page encourages groups to post photos so those who might be interested in joining can get updates as to when and where to meet,” she added. “You don’t have to be Jewish to participate. You just have to have a heart.”

Ms. Cherkas, her husband, Jeffrey, their 16-year-old son, Jacob, 16, and their 13-year-old daughter, Jordan, are congregants at Kol Dorot in Oradell.“Rabbi Yosef  Orenstein and Rabbi Dov Drizin of Valley Chabad and Cantor Alan Sokoloff of Temple Emanu-El of the Pascack Valley often join us on our walks,” she said. “And Mayor Carlos Rendo of Woodcliff Lake has attended on occasion.

“Our weekly walks are a meaningful way for people who don’t have a voice in other forums to support the plight of Israeli victims of kidnapping, torture and horror,” she continued.

“Our first walk in Woodcliff Lake was on Brookview Drive, a main thoroughfare in a quiet, residential neighborhood. There were about 30 in attendance.  While the experience was beautiful and fulfilling, we didn’t feel we got the exposure we needed; in fact, only one car passed us.

“So we sent more texts and posts about our walks to a WhatsApp group called ‘Support Israel,’ made up of about 300 members who were residents of Upper Pascack Valley,” she continued. “This group was a great source of communication and news for those in northern Bergen County to stay up to date on happenings in Israel and to get involved.

Families walk together.

“By the next Sunday, we changed our venue and met at the Woodcliff Lake train station. Our attendance grew to 50.”

Every week, the Woodcliff Lake RFTL group focuses on a particular hostage, telling his or her story. “If we can’t find suitable information online, we reach out to the hostage’s family via Instagram,” she said. Each family we’ve represented during our walks has an Instagram handle —’Bring Hersh Home’ or ‘Bring Yarden Home.’ We tell the family our mission and that we are walking for Run for Their Lives. They’ve gotten to know us and look forward to our weekly posts. They are grateful to know that somewhere across the world, their loved one has not been forgotten and is being thought of and prayed for.

“During our pre-walk ritual, we remember the hostages that we discussed throughout the previous weeks. This past Sunday, I asked a teenage boy in our group to read the biography of Edan Alexander, a medaled swimmer from Tenafly. Another day, I asked a 7-year-old to read the biography of Ariel Bibas, a 4-year-old. Last week, Shlomo Manzur, a carpenter by trade and Holocaust survivor, turned 86 in captivity. His grandchildren asked everyone who walked with Run for Their Lives to eat ice cream in his honor. I brought Dixie Cups and ices to our walk so everyone could honor Mr. Manzur.”

At another walk, she said: “Today is the 119th day of our hostages in captivity. Today we remember Hersh Goldberg-Polin from Plainview, N.Y.,” and added some personal information about the hostage. “Often, we have a special guest. Last week a resident returned from a mission to Israel and shared snippets of her special journey. She shared that Nama Levi, a hostage in Gaza, loves Leonard Cohen, so we sang Cohen’s haunting ballad, ‘Hallelujah.’

Leaders get the walk ready to go.

“One Sunday, a commander and some troops from Battalion 9263 on the northern border chimed in via What’s App to sing Oseh Shalom. Paratrooper, reservist and popular Israeli singer and cantor, Sergeant Major Noam Buskila has joined via What’s App to sing with us.

“The only requirement from RFTL is that we stand together with our flags, banners, and posters of the hostages and videotape our group in unison saying ‘Woodcliff Lake NJ says Bring Them Home Now!’” The videotapes from groups all over the world are sent to RFTL, which edits them, creates a collage, and posts them on its website.

“The videos are indescribably compelling,” Ms. Cherkas said. “We join in a common effort.”

There are hundreds of groups around the world. It’s not safe for all of them. “Every week a man from India walks alone,” she said. “He puts himself at great risk holding an Israeli flag and banner.”

Lauren Cherkas and Lana Platin of Demarest urge the world to bring the girls home during International Women’s Month.

The group continued to grow until a Palestinian family in town, with children in the local elementary, middle, and high schools, began to protest the walk. “They seemed to find us by chance,” Ms. Cherkas said. “They drove by in a pickup truck and began to scream hateful things from the window, such as ‘murderous Jews!’ and ‘baby killers!’

“The passenger next to the driver’s seat, who appeared to be a Woodcliff Lake student, held a Palestinian flag out the window and waved it.

“With the assumption that this family would be heading toward the train station, the spot where we were heading to complete our walk, we called the Woodcliff Lake police dispatch to request police presence there.

“Upon our arrival, the family was there, interacting with a gentleman who was holding an Israeli flag but had not participated in the walk. That engagement became loud, and the police intervened to de-escalate it.” Eager to leave quickly, the group lined up for their weekly video and headed to their cars.

The next day, Ms. Cherkas reached out to Tim Torell, the head of security at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. “He believed going forward, we’d be safe.”

Some walkers fasten posters on their backs.

The police and officials at the town’s schools were notified, in case there were any repercussions.

The next week, for both their physical and their emotional security, the walkers met on the corner of Brookdale and Douglas; that’s where they meet now.

“Not knowing how many people would come out to walk after the Palestinian incident, I reached out to Adam Koppelman, a friend from Montvale and owner of SpeedPro,” Ms. Cherkas said. “He generously donated banners and posters with the Run for Their Lives logo to support our efforts.

“We were grateful that despite what had happened, the community continued to come out in large support of RFTL,” Ms. Cherkas said. “That following Sunday, our numbers doubled to 100.”

Lauren Cherkas, her father, David Levinson, her son, Jacob, and her father-in-law, Paul Cherkas, walk together.

“The Woodcliff Lake police chief knows about and supports RFTL. Each week, we are accompanied by local police for our walks.”

Ms. Cherkas is a businesswoman — she’s the president and chief sales officer at Artistic Tile in Paramus — and she is no stranger to charitable giving. .

At a Chanukah party that a friend, Cheryl Franklin of Woodcliff Lake, gave last December, Ms. Cherkas met Noam Buskila, the Israeli musician and IDF reservist who sang with the group on WhatsApp. “Noam performed in his paratrooper uniform,” Ms. Cherkas said. “We started talking. He saw in my face my desire to help. It was instant friendship.”

When the war broke out, Mr. Buskila, a father of six, rejoined his paratrooper reserve unit on Israel’s northern border. He told Ms. Cherkas that his battalion had needs that the IDF could not meet. “You’re a rainmaker,” he told me. “My battalion needs helmets.”

Ms. Cherkas had a lot going on in her life just then. She was in the process of moving Artistic Tile’s showroom. She also was just weeks away from hosting her daughter Jordan’s bat mitzvah. “Sure,” she thought. “Ask a busy woman to help you.”

Kids gather for the walk, holding signs.

But her answer was yes. “I was ready to roll up my sleeves,” she said.

Mr. Buskila’s request posed two challenges. First, it was the end of December and everyone she knew had already emptied their pockets to donate to worthy Israeli causes. Second, she’d need to find an organization through which she could collect donations. “I couldn’t very well expect people to Venmo me the amount of money this battalion needed,” Ms. Cherkas said.

“I had lost my faith in God after October 7 — but Mr. Buskila was certain that our chance meeting and the good that came afterwards was all because of Hashem,” she said.

Ms. Cherkas’s friend Allison Hechler of Tenafly introduced her to Teddy Raskin, a cofounder of Israel Friends. Israel Friends, operating under the Worldwide Friends Organization, was a 501c3 team that was founded and began operating within 24 hours after the massacre of October 7. “Israel Friends delivers essential equipment, medical supplies, and humanitarian aid to those who need it most,” Ms. Cherkas said.

Reuben Twerksy of Woodcliff Lake dresses as Batman to honor 4-year-old hostage Ariel Bibas on Purim.

Between her network of personal friends and professional associates, followers of Noam Buskila, and creative local vendors who donated proceeds from sales of Am Yisroel Chai sweaters and We Will Dance Again sweatshirts, fundraising for life-protecting equipment has topped $100,000 and is still growing. “While I’ve just served as a lay volunteer the work has provided a light in my life that I thought had been extinguished after October 7,” she said.

Ms. Cherkas believes that her involvement with Run For Their Lives was also bashert. “Jena Tell, a friend from Woodcliff Lake who became more of a dear friend when we discovered how closely our mutual passion for Zionism aligned, has a son, Ashton, who is my daughter Jordan’s age,” she said. “Both were to become bar and bat mitzvah in February and June of this year,” she said. “What we didn’t know in early 2024 was just how like-minded we were.”

Ms. Tell had learned about RFTL online and attended a walk in New York City in January. She returned with an urgent desire to launch a local chapter. She and Ms. Cherkas explored starting an RTFL group together.

“Jena has become my partner in raising awareness for the plight of those suffering in captivity,” Ms. Cherkas said.

Rabbi Yosef Orenstein of Valley Chabad often joins the walk.

“People on our walks have asked me if we are ever going to move back to the train station where we’d had more visibility, where passersby would honk at us in enthusiasm and solidarity,” she said. “I tell them that the emotional distress the children experienced during the Palestinian family protest in late February was not worth being repeated. Our goal is to offer a non-violent way by which to honor the hostages—not a violent one.”

The walk is supposed to last for 18 minutes — not coincidentally, that’s symbolic of the word “chai,” which means life —  “ generally they are double that length,” Ms. Cherkas said. “When the walk ends, it is typical for people to congregate in the street chatting. We want to be with each other.”

“I’ve always thought that Woocliff Lake was a nice community with lovely people, but I didn’t know how much I really needed the community until October 7,” she added. Run For Their Lives has given her purpose. “By planning our weekly agenda to honor the hostages, taking videos of our dedicated participants, and posting our group’s experience on social media to be viewed by a larger audience, I join my neighbors each Sunday for comfort, support, ritual, and an opportunity to engage with tikkun olam — repairing the world.”

For more information or to start a local group, go to run4lives.org

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