Finding My Comfort Zone: Running in Israel
As a runner for over a decade, I’ve always felt comfortable putting on my running shirt, shorts, and sneakers and getting out to explore the streets of wherever I am. I assumed that my first time running in Israel, in my new city Petach Tikvah, would be no different to running in any other city. Since Israel gets very hot during the day, I left for my first run through the city a little after 7am one Monday morning, hoping it would give me enough time to get out and back before the sun rose too high in the sky.
Heading down the sidewalk along the main highway called Jabotinsky Street towards the park, I felt good. There were many cars on the street, mostly heading towards Tel Aviv. There were not too many people outside, and in the pockets where I did encounter people by bus stops, I was able to dodge around them swiftly. When I finally made it to the park, there were two other runners circling the short path within it. I felt happy and at ease, content that I had found a nice park that I could run to on a regular basis, a lovely wide open space where I could even stop and stretch for a bit if I felt like it.
Running past them in my regular, not-so-modest running attire, I could feel their stares. While their judgment was palpable, what weighed on me more was my own consideration of the impression I was making upon them.
Most of my run home was pleasant as well, the people waiting by bus stops happily moving to the side so I could pass. However, for the last half a mile back home, I felt incredibly uncomfortable. As I turned the corner to run the final stretch, I found myself running amongst swarms of little girls. I was evidently running right past the entrance to a very religious elementary school for girls, right as they were arriving for the 8am start of the school day. I tried to dodge past what felt like hundreds of small girls wearing shirts down to their wrists, skirts down to their ankles, white stockings covering their legs, and innocent smiles plastered on their faces. Running past them in my regular, not-so-modest running attire, I could feel their stares. While their judgment was palpable, what weighed on me more was my own consideration of the impression I was making upon them. For the first time in my life as I was running, I questioned my position as a role model for the girls in the street. Was I setting a bad example by running with so much skin showing?
Uneasy thoughts bothered me. How did those young girls, and some of their parents walking them to school, see me? Was I a horrible person in their minds? What, if anything, was I to them? I am confident that when I go out for a run, I am doing something wonderful for my mental health and for my body. But how am I perceived by the 35% of people living in Petach Tikvah who are traditionally ‘religious’? Do I care what they think of me? Should I care? I spent a lot of time wondering to what extent I should alter my practices and attire to make the religious Israelis around me most comfortable.
Was I setting a bad example by running with so much skin showing?
Since this first run in my new city, I have realized that it is unnecessary for me to change my running attire to make the religious people more comfortable. The majority of residents in Petach Tikvah wear whatever clothes they please, including shorts and tank tops. The secular do coexist with the religious, and they live in the same neighborhoods and apartment buildings. However, I do make a conscious effort now to avoid running in school areas when the students are arriving. It’s an easy compromise I’m willing to make, because I don’t ever want to be stared down again by virtuous religious girls if I can avoid it.