Swimming for Sadna
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Swimming for Sadna

Teaneck resident takes on a challenge in sync with her sisters

Sisters Debra Wener, left, Phyllis Miller, next to her, and Beth Saar in pink. They are joined by their cousins, from left, Elisheva, Shani, Rachel, Ayelet, and Shira Wilk.
Sisters Debra Wener, left, Phyllis Miller, next to her, and Beth Saar in pink. They are joined by their cousins, from left, Elisheva, Shani, Rachel, Ayelet, and Shira Wilk.

Phyllis Miller of Teaneck says she wasn’t much of a swimmer last August when her sister — who is a very good swimmer — told her about an upcoming charitable event in Israel.

“I have a lot of family in Israel,” Ms. Miller said. “I have two sisters there. One, in Jerusalem, is a swimmer.” In fact, she added, for two years in a row that sister, Debra Weiner, had participated in an all-women’s swimathon called Swim4Sadna.

Sadnat Shiluv, in Gush Etzion, helps children with special needs who “fall between the cracks,” according to its website. The race was begun by Sadna parent Vivienne Glaser. Looking for a way to help develop the school, Ms. Glaser, who had competed on the national swim team at the Maccabiah Games in London, had hoped to take part in the annual Cross-Kinneret Swim after she moved to Israel. Sadly, it was always scheduled on Shabbat. Six years ago, after going through a series of bureaucratic hoops, Ms. Glaser succeeded in organizing the first all-women’s swim, coupled with a fundraiser for Sadnat Shiluv, to be held on Fridays rather than Saturdays.

Ms. Miller calls her sister Debra “the type of person who goes for unattainable goals.” “I’m the oldest and much more timid,” said Ms. Miller, who is now a substitute Jewish studies teacher at Yavneh Academy and had taught at the Yeshiva of North Jersey. She also coordinated the Partnership Together Program for the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. Her husband, Rabbi Michael Miller, is the executive vice president/CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council in New York.

Ms. Miller’s participation in the swim came about for two reasons. First, she learned from her sister that the swim — now in its seventh year — benefited children with special needs. “Something clicked in my head,” she said. “I said, I have to do this, even though I’m not a swimmer or an exercise fiend. I have a background working with learning disabled/special needs students.

“Since this is a program for that group of kids, it was very important for me to participate in it.”

Second, Ms. Miller has a first cousin, Rachel Wilk, whose daughter Ayelet has Down Syndrome and participates in the Sadnat program. Her cousin, together with her three daughters and Ayelet’s swimming instructor, have been participating in the swim since it began. “It touched me that Ayelet does the swim so well,” Ms. Miller said.

In all, Ms. Miller said, 300 women participated in the event, which took place the first Friday in June in the southern part of Lake Kinneret. Those who didn’t swim served as helpers. That group included Ms. Miller’s other sister, Beth Saar, who lives in Ranana. “We needed someone to come in at the end and bring our shoes,” Ms. Miller said. “She also held my glasses.” People came from all over Israel to watch, she added.

“We had to raise money to participate, and you could not participate unless you raised 2,000 shekels (or about $520 dollars),” Ms. Miller said. She raised more than 4,000 shekels, or $1,000. Her sister raised more than 5,000 shekels. “Friends and family were incredibly supportive,” she said.

Participants may swim either 3.9 kilometres or 1.9 kilometres. “I did 1.9, or one and a quarter miles,” Ms. Miller said. “When I was in Israel in August, I decided I had to do it. I came home and went right to a fitness gym with a pool, close to my home.”

To prepare for such a large venture, she had to hire a trainer. “I hired the wonderful Joan Falco, who is a triathlete,” she said. The first hour was spent just mapping out a plan. “I thought I’d just walk in and start,” Ms. Miller added, but instead she realized that she had to work on upper body strength one hour a week and swim one morning a week from September through May.

The would-be swim participant also tried to squeeze in water aerobics, and ensured that she had a chance to swim whenever she visited Israel. Fortunately, she said, Yavneh was very understanding, scheduling her substitute teaching days so they did not conflict with her training.

“I was determined, when it was freezing cold early in the morning and I didn’t want to leave the house,” she said. “When my trainer texted me that she was not available, I went anyway.”

On a trip to Israel in November, “I swam with my sister at the Inbal. Then I came in February and we swam together. My sister is a very good swimmer. For me, it was about the endurance and stamina. The swim took me about two hours. Because I was trained, I was able to be in the water that long. My sister finished first.

“I was the turtle, but I finished.” All the swimmers received medals.

Ms. Miller left for Israel on Memorial Day “because Thursday my son graduated from Harvard with a Ph.D., and we came back to Teaneck on Friday. I left Monday and arrived Tuesday morning. I thank the Teaneck Swim Club for being open on Sunday,” she added. That’s where and when she had her last practice swim.

Ms. Miller said she will keep on swimming. Her trainer is extremely proud, she added. “I went for the excitement and to reach a goal I felt I wanted to reach,” said the 65-year-old mother of three — all of whom were educated in yeshivot — and grandmother of eight. One daughter lives in Efrat, the other in Teaneck. Her son soon will move to Ohio.

But even more, “It was important to swim for that group,” she said. “The funds raised are going to build a multidisciplinary arts center. The estimated cost of the project is 800,000 shekels.” The school has a café, where her niece Ayelet has worked; it offers courses in life skills, and provides supportive apartments. “Next year it will get to build an arts center,” she said.

After she came home, Ms. Miller talked to her third-grade Yavneh students about “reaching a goal you think is unattainable. They were so excited,” she said.

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