Found in Central Park: The Torah of Community
Last Saturday night, my family and I brought in the new secular year with 4,000 of our closest friends. At 11:30 PM, the four of us arrived in Central Park to line up with approximately 3,996 other New Yorkers for the Midnight Run, a four-mile loop through the park that takes place annually on New Year’s Eve.
Let me state for the record that I am not a runner. I would have happily shown up as a spectator to cheer people on; you can be sure that actually running the course was not my idea (to be perfectly honest, the earlier part of the evening found me secretly hoping that the drizzle outside would become a downpour and keep us home on the couch). It was our seven year old who had been completely enamored by the scene when he watched last year’s Midnight Run, and he declared in January that our family should take on the challenge of participating this year. “Did you register us yet?!” was a regular refrain in our home throughout 2022.
A fantastic fireworks display erupted at midnight, kicking off the race. Pretty quickly into it, I realized it didn’t matter that I’m not a runner. Lots of other people there weren’t either. We walked, jogged, strolled. We alternated between running and walking. We stopped to breathe, stopped to stretch, stopped for water. A DJ played music that was heard through loudspeakers dotting the course of the run. People wore costumes, tuxedos, and other festive New Year’s Eve garb. Volunteers stationed every few feet rang cowbells and noisemakers and shouted encouragingly “you got this!” and “you’re doing great!” Others handed out cups of water and sparkling cider.
As we rounded back to the West Side and hit the three-mile mark, my seven year old came up alongside me. “Mama,” he said, “I really like running with so many other people. It gives me energy and it’s making it easier for me to run. And everyone is so nice, and saying nice things to each other, and we’re all doing this together. I mean, I don’t know anyone else here except for our family, but it feels like we’re all part of a community.”
Out of the mouths of babes.
Four thousand people, strangers with a common purpose, encouraging and supporting each other on the journey, celebrating a new year with joyful smiles and high fives. Thousands more on the sidelines—volunteers, event staff, first responders—making sure that we were hydrated, safe, and feeling great about ourselves no matter our speed. Whether we had finished the route in 30 minutes or 2 hours, each of us heard our name called out enthusiastically as we crossed the finish line. The race was only four miles, and I had walked most of it, but it was hard not to feel like I was part of a special group of champions.
It later occurred to me that 4,000 is also approximately the number of people who comprise the membership of BJ. Four thousand people, some of us strangers to each other but all of us sharing the common purpose of seeking meaning and belonging in our tradition. I pray that this year is one of connection and joy for each of us, where we encourage and support each other on the next loop of this journey called life. Where metaphoric medical tents and literal volunteers provide the care we need along the way, and where anyone who comes in to our spaces might find themselves saying “I really like being here with so many other people. It gives me energy. And everyone is so nice, and saying nice things to each other, and we’re all doing this together. I mean, I don’t know anyone else here except for our family, but it feels like we’re all part of a community.”
As we transition into the first Shabbat of 2023, I wish you all a Happy New Year. Here’s to community, and to all we can do and be together in the year ahead.