Riding to Jerusalem
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Riding to Jerusalem

Closter synagogue sets Purim to Passover as time to exercise apart but together

Casey Halper, left, walks with her daughter, Sophie, and her mother, Dale Pilchman.
Casey Halper, left, walks with her daughter, Sophie, and her mother, Dale Pilchman.

It’s about 5,681 miles from Closter to Jerusalem. It’d be hard to walk, run, or bike from one to the other, unless you’ve thoroughly mastered the art of walking (or running, or biking) on water. But it’s possible to join with a group of friends to cover that distance, and you can do it in specific time period. In, say, the month between Purim and Pesach.

That’s what members of Temple Emanu-El in Closter are doing.

Everyone who’s in the group — which is anyone in the community who chooses to be — can cover as many miles as he or she wants, alone inside or outside or in (small, covid-careful) groups, outside. All members are free to not only to walk, run, or ride, but also to use their Pelotons, other stationary bikes, or treadmills; any form of locomotion, as long as it involves using muscles, is legit.

It’s called Exodus 2.0.

One of the project’s goals is to foster community, and to help participants think about the metaphoric meaning of leaving home and trekking through an unknown wilderness — in this case, the unknown is covid. Another, more secondary but still powerful goal, is to raise money. Participants are encouraged to take photos and post them on social media.

“It’s a lot of fun,” the shul’s rabbi, David-Seth Kirshner, who was an early advocate and continues to be an avid proponent for the idea, said. “It’s a chance for people to use their bodies and free their brains,” to allocate time when they are free to think, well, freely. And the idea seems so appealing, particularly in this odd pandemic prespring moment, that “at least nine other synagogues have reached out to me about it.”

This is the top of the Temple Emanu-El’s Exodus 2.0 leaderboard.

Rabbi Kirshner just started using a Peloton about a year ago, he said. “Exactly at this time last year, I decided to order one. ‘We’ll be stuck here for a few weeks,’” he remembers saying to his wife. Now, a year later, “it has been amazing for me,” he said. “It’s just a godsend. I’m on it anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes every day. I have ridden the equivalent of the distance to the Santa Monica Pier,” and all without leaving home.

Evan Schwartz of Tenafly is a co-chair of the project. “Almost 70 people have signed up for it,” he said. “The youngest is 10 or 11, and there are people in their 70s doing it. We had one person bike 167 miles in the first week.”

It’s fun to do, but it’s more than just fun, he said. “At the beginning of the pandemic we started a Peloton group to ride together, and we created a hashtag, #teexodus, for it, but we wanted to do more. It’s fun to ride with your friends and compete with them and see it on the leaderboard, but this also is a good way to raise money for something besides ourselves. Not just to get healthy, but also to raise money for those unfortunately in need right now.

“It’s a great way to raise awareness, and to do it as a group. And not just adults, but kids are involved. So when my daughter goes to Dunkin’ Donuts with her friends, at the same time she is raising money for people in need. We sponsor her and so do her grandparents, and she also is using her own money, that she has worked for. So it is a great way to raise awareness and be healthy.”

The team will have no problem making its goal, covering the miles between Jersey and Jerusalem, he said. “In the first week, we got halfway to Jerusalem.”

The milage numbers are not verified, he said — “this is a mitzvah, and it is based on good faith” — but still people are being very careful and very specific. “Some people are logging their mileage down to the hundredths of a mile.”

Casey Halper of Demarest is the project’s other co-chair. “I am especially passionate about this project, because we are boosting our own health and wellness, I am connecting with my family and the community, and we also are raising money for people who are hungry at Passover,” she said.

Lauren Messer is adding up miles as she walks — metaphorically, at any rate — toward Jerusalem.

“My children both are participating, and so are my parents. My mom has been coming once a week, from Verona. My daughter will go with my husband for a mile or two, and take the dog out with friends, and they will clock the distance.

“I have been doing it too — I walk every day, and I also use the Peloton — and then I feel extremely connected with the community. I have friends who text me their mile updates.”

Part of that community connection is the way the rabbis and other staff members participate; not only Rabbi Kirshner but also the shul’s lifelong learning director, Rabbi Jeremy Ruberg, are making their way toward the virtual Jerusalem. “I feel the rabbis’ passion and commitment, and also they feel real and approachable and relevant,” Ms. Halper said. “They’re not just rabbis. They’re real people.

“It’s so good for overall morale and connections.”

The project brings together so many elements, she said; health, and community, and the Jewish calendar, and the approach of spring, and the sense that the pandemic is going to end, and the feeling of hope and new beginnings.

All of these emotions accompany Temple Emanu-El’s members as they make their way, at least metaphorically, toward Jerusalem this year.

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