When I began coaching the Los Angeles Marathon team at Beit T’Shuvah, a residential addiction treatment program and synagogue in Los Angeles, I had no idea how the trajectory of my life would change. I witnessed over and over again how achieving a challenging goal, staying the course, being part of a team, and paying it forward, played an integral role in strengthening recovery for participants. In 2018, I quit my job and started Strides in Recovery (SIR), a nonprofit that leads running groups for clients in Los Angeles County addiction treatment programs, including Beit T’Shuvah and the Chabad Treatment Center.
As the years went by, I began to clearly see connections between training, recovery, and Judaism. One of our core values at SIR is to be collaborative – we celebrate each other’s successes, lift others when they are down, and inspire and encourage each other to do our best. This parallels the 12-step recovery principle of “being of service.” In fact, page 97 of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous highlights how critical this is with this powerful line: “Helping others is the foundation stone of your recovery.”
So, what’s the Jewish connection?
As Jews, it’s our mandate to be involved in acts of Tikkun Olam, to be God’s partner in the work of repairing our broken world. Referring to tzedakah, which is one of the ways we practice Tikkun Olam, Rabbi Rachel Barenblatt says, “Jewish tradition teaches that even those who receive tzedakah are also obligated to give it. In other words: even if I’m in need of assistance myself, I’m obligated to give what I can to someone else in need.” She further explains that “I love this because it breaks down the binary between giver and receiver. And it works as a teaching about intangibles, too. Even if I need emotional support, I can still offer support to others.”
A Powerful Example
The clearest example I can think of to demonstrate all of these connections is to tell you about one very special event and share the experiences of several of the participants, in their own words.
It was Sunday morning, February 12, 2023, five weeks before the Los Angeles Marathon. Three thousand middle and high school students had spent months training for the LA Marathon with Students Run Los Angeles (SLRA), a nonprofit whose mission is “to challenge underserved secondary students to experience the benefits of goal setting, character development, adult mentoring and improved health by providing them with a truly life-changing experience: training for and completion of the Los Angeles Marathon.” The youth were about to start an 18.6 mile training run.
But this was no ordinary SRLA training run. It was the event that determined who would participate in the 26.2 mile-long Los Angeles Marathon, and who would be cut from the team. In order to qualify, the students needed to finish this run in under 5 hours. SRLA reached out to the community for help with this call to action: “It’s a tough distance for the kids and they may need some extra motivation, so SRLA is looking for volunteers to help walk/run students in for their last 4 miles.”
Motivating Others While Healing Themselves
The men of the Strides in Recovery (SIR) team at the Chabad Treatment Center, rose to the challenge. They waited along Mile 15, and as the slower runners passed by, each Strides in Recovery volunteer jumped in, ran with a student who was struggling to keep up, and inspired them to keep going.
The men were there to support the students, and in doing so, they helped heal themselves as well. They each walked away with a powerful lesson about their ability to pay it forward, to do their part to heal the world. Here’s what four Strides in Recovery volunteers had to say about their experiences.
Chabad client Zach was initially worried that he wouldn’t be good enough, that he’d let his student partners down. But, when he started running with them and offering encouraging words, he felt a change. “I could see the shift,” he said. “I got them out of their tired bodies.”
That’s when he realized he could make a difference. As they approached the finish line, Zach helped his student tap into his inner reserves and finish strong. “I inspired him to kick it into gear,” he said. Together, they ran triumphantly across the finish line. Then Zach turned around, headed back out onto the course and ran in more students.
“It was so cool to see them finish, to see their excitement. It was a reminder to me that there is something in each of us that wants to shine. We just need some encouragement.”
For Andy, running with his student partner was about imparting a life lesson. “It was so cool to me to know that I could help,” he explained. Like Zach, he also had worries about how to talk to the teens, but those quickly faded. He started his conversation by complimenting his student for showing up day after day and having the self-discipline to work so hard for so long on a single goal. He told him that this mindset would be helpful for the rest of his life.
“So much of drug addiction is about instant gratification,” he said. “To me it was genuinely nice to be able to encourage people and be part of their lives, after being so selfish for so long as an addict.”
The meaning of this experience for Will also touched on moving past his selfishness and giving back.
“Cheering for someone else is the most unselfish thing you can do,” he explained. “When you’re cheering for them, if they win, we all win. It was a huge blessing, a big eye opener that I could genuinely cheer for someone else, that I could help them achieve their goals and dreams. I didn’t know I was that compassionate.”
For Elie, it was all about being able to pay it forward. “It was about giving back after all we’ve been given to help us overcome our addiction. It was about being there when asked.”
Each of the students who had a Chabad Treatment Center running partner finished fast enough to qualify for participation in the LA Marathon as part of the SRLA team. Each of their adult running buddies was part of their success; and through their selfless acts, these newly sober men helped heal themselves too. By embracing the opportunity to pay it forward, they learned that they could make a difference, that they were compassionate, that they could help others shine. It was a day of Tikkun Olam through running.
I’ll end with another quote from Rabbi Barenblatt: “Helping each other cultivate hope does not change the realities…But it can help us be resilient in the face of those realities…This is our work: to use our gevurah (strength) to support and uplift and strengthen each other, so that together we can resist despair and keep working toward a better world.”
Leslie Gold is an RRCA-certified running coach who specializes in training the newly sober. She began this second career in 2013 as the volunteer coach of the LA Marathon team at Beit T’Shuvah. Since then, Leslie has helped hundreds in their first year of sobriety cross the finish line of this challenging event, as well as numerous shorter distance runs. Inspired by the many Beit T’Shuvah LA Marathon team members who described their experience as life-changing and critical to their long-term sobriety, Leslie started Strides in Recovery to bring the healing power of goal-oriented group training to other recovery communities. Today, Strides in Recovery leads running programs for hundreds of clients in 17 Los Angeles area addiction treatment programs.