The first annual Jerusalem Marathon later this month will provide spectacular views of 5,000+ years of history for spectators and competitors alike.
All competitors, that is, except for Richard Bernstein, a blind attorney from Detroit, Michigan.
Bernstein, 37, does not allow his lifelong lack of sight to limit his athletic endeavors.
The 42-kilometer race on March 25 will be his 14th marathon – not to mention an Iron Man in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, in 2008 and the Eilat Israman half-Iron in January.
The civil rights attorney only first got involved with sports after completing law school at Northwestern University.
“When I was growing up, expectations were much lower for people with disabilities,” he said. “The general consensus was that disabled people have no reason to compete or do physical fitness.”
Not being able to compete took a toll on Bernstein’s self-esteem.
“When you are younger, the leaders of the school – the cool kids – were the athletes,” he said.
Bernstein’s athletic pursuits are more than personal; he’s on a mission to change the public understanding of what disabled people can do.
“Playing sports gives legitimacy to blind people,” he said.
Running in Israel has added significance.
Over the course of the many trips Bernstein has taken to Israel, Israelis have always been accommodating and have gone to great lengths to help the blind athlete. Bernstein recounts buses which have strayed from their typical routes to bring him where he needs to go. People have gotten out of cars at red lights to help him cross an intersection.
He attributes the extreme kindness to the fact that “no one is afraid of being touchy-feely [in Israel]. They’d rather tackle me than tell me a car is coming,” he said.
Currently, people with disabilities are not required to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, where mandatory service for most citizens is, of course, the norm. Competing in the marathon is one way to advocate for the integration of the military, a significant part of Israeli culture.
In turn, Bernstein hopes to change societal perceptions and promote full integration of people with disabilities into Israeli society.
Aiding him in his mission is Shaked, a pilot in the Israel Air Force whose last name can not be printed for security reasons.
Shaked acts as Bernstein’s set of eyes – “the best guide I’ve ever had” – by giving him directional cues such as “hard right” and “soft left” when running.
“My skills come from seeing things from different perspectives,” Shaked said. “I close my eyes and see what might scare him.”
During the Eilat Israman triathlon, they rode a tandem bike and swam with a rope connecting them at the waist.
Shaked was the perfect partner.
Not only did he plan five steps ahead, accurately grade inclines and declines, and articulate every potential footfall, but he also shared the same ideals of raising disabilities awareness in Israel.
For years, the IAF pilot has been advocating for the inclusion of people with special needs into the army.
Shaked had one young man working for him as a graphic designer of pilots’ checklists; another worked in a unit sweeping the floor and performing odd jobs around the base.
Regardless of the job his recruits with disabilities do, Shaked hopes that his work will affect the mentality of the typical soldiers and eventually promote complete acceptance and integration of people with disabilities into Israeli culture.
Richard Bernstein has lived his own life fully integrated. He is a civil rights attorney, primarily handling cases in support of rights for the disabled, and he also is a professor at the University of Michigan, where he teaches social justice.
Practicing law is yet another opportunity to affect change.
“I believe in what I’m doing so strongly. I know that through the law, I can make a difference,” he said.
He didn’t complete law school without significant hardship, though.
Bernstein convinced Northwestern – which eventually changed its policy – that the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) was discriminatory against the visually impaired.
Without being able to see, Bernstein spent hours memorizing and internalizing material during his years in law school. He prepares similarly for trial by learning case law and all of the arguments by heart.
One of the biggest challenges Bernstein had to overcome was lowered expectations.
“There were so many people who said ‘college isn’t for you; law school isn’t for you.’ But I knew this was the kind of work I desperately wanted to do,” he said.
It took him four to five times longer to learn the material than it took his classmates.
All of the effort was for a greater purpose.
“I promised God that if He gave me the chance to graduate and pass the bar exam, I’d dedicate my life to representing people with special needs and make justice.”
That is exactly what he did. Today, he works exclusively pro bono in the public services division of his father’s law firm, choosing the cases that will have the greatest impact on people who otherwise would have no legal representation.
Participation in over 14 major races is a monumental accomplishment, but for Richard, running also provides for a spiritual relationship with God.
Training for a 42-kilometer race without the ability to see takes a tremendous amount of mental discipline and involves working through pain, hardship and difficulty.
“For me to work through that struggle, I was able to have a genuine connection with a higher being,” he said.
Shaked also feels that his work is a reflection of his Judaism.
“We are making a Kiddush Hashem [sanctification of God’s name] by changing lives,” he said.
Bernstein has spent his entire life trying to open eyes and pave new trails, and he sees this latest endeavor as another landmark event on his bigpicture journey.
“God will give you what you need when you need it most,” he said.
“The Jerusalem marathon is going to be just another struggle I will overcome.”