By STEVE LUBETKIN
Special to the Voice
Shortly before 3 p.m. Monday, Mt. Laurel Rabbi Ben David, senior rabbi of Adath Emanu-El and an avid marathon runner, had just checked off his “lifelong dream” of competing in–and completing–the Boston Marathon.
His official time of three hours, 21 minutes and 37 seconds–a personal best–put “the running rabbi” across the finish line as the 6,245th finisher.
Then, as he approached his hotel near the marathon’s finish line, the lifelong dream took a darker turn. Two bombs exploded on Boylston Street a few blocks apart, killing at least three people, including an eight-year-old boy, and severely injuring scores of race spectators.
For David, it was a replay of the nightmare of September 11, 2001, which he witnessed firsthand from lower Manhattan. (Article continues, and listen to an audio interview with Rabbi David after the jump.)
“It’s a marathon with incredible lore and tradition, it’s the longest-standing marathon in the world, and it’s where the best in the world go to test themselves against the best in the world,” he recalled.
David was running in his 14th marathon. “I trained like I never had, I peaked at close to 75 miles a week, and was feeling both excited and enthusiastic, but also a little bit anxious going in because you’re taking on a really good field.”
It was a sunny, clear day in Boston, David said. “The support on the course was incredible. You feel the sense of camaraderie that is pretty remarkable and you find in few other places these days,” he said.
Hear Rabbi David’s firsthand account of the tragic events at the Boston Marathon in this podcast interview with Steve Lubetkin.
Running with his close friend, Rabbi Scott B. Weiner, senior rabbi of Temple Israel of New Rochelle, NY, David said the pair helped each other through some of the more difficult stretches of the 26-mile course.
“As you make your way to the end of the race the excitement intensifies,” he said. “As I got to mile 23 and 24, I realized I was having a very good day. I finished really strong.”
David would have his personal best time in the marathon. His last mile was his fastest of the day. He ran the race two minutes better than his previous races.
“Physically, I was annihilated,” David recalled. “But emotionally, I was thrilled.”
After finishing the marathon, David joined other runners in a gauntlet that involved picking up awards, getting race photos taken, and other checkout rituals that take time to complete.
As he approached his hotel about two blocks from the finish line, the bombs exploded in what he called “two enormous blasts.”
“You knew right away that something extraordinary had happened,” he said. “But no one knew exactly what.”
David, who saw the attacks of 9/11 from lower Manhattan, said he began to worry about something else happening. “You get this awful anticipation that it’s not over, and something else is going to happen, a sense of incredible unease,” he said.
David’s wife, Lisa, had remained at home in South Jersey with their three children. He sent her a text message reporting that he was fine but instructing her to turn on the news.
Just as he had done on 9/11, David watched the news unfold with his friend Scott Weiner. Weiner finished the race a little ahead of David and went to meet his wife, but they were able to reconnect fairly quickly.
Forced to evacuate from his hotel for several hours, David spent much of the afternoon fielding text messages from people who knew the pair were at the race and were concerned for their safety. Fighting off exhaustion from having just finished the marathon, David posted a comment on Facebook to provide an update for friends and family. (David’s father is Rabbi Jerry David at Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill.)
Even leaving the city Tuesday morning was a challenge, he said, describing how he had to navigate barricades and a heavy police presence.
While the bombings reminded him of how violence often makes a place in the world, he also pointed out how hundreds of people at the race rallied to help each other.
“It reminds us that the world is not all darkness,” he said. “I choose to believe there is much more light than darkness.”