Once Paralyzed, Now He's Running The Pittsburgh Marathon To Honor Tree Of Life Victims

"I said, 'If I can stand, I can walk. And if I can walk, I can run.'"

When Zev Rosenberg hit his head while working at his HVAC business in 2015 and lost feeling throughout his body, his first reaction wasn’t panic ― it was calm calculation about how long it would take for someone to find him. 

“It was about 2:00 p.m. If my wife hadn’t heard from me by 5:00, she’d probably start to worry a bit, but she wouldn’t want to bother me, so she probably wouldn’t call anyone until 6:00 or 7:00,” he recalled. “I was like, ‘I could be here for a couple hours, so buckle up.’”

It’s perhaps not your typical response to paralyzation from the neck down, but Rosenberg isn’t your typical guy. The 57-year-old, who suffered a spinal cord injury that temporarily paralyzed him and made him an incomplete quadriplegic, ran a marathon just a year after his injury ― and will run the Pittsburgh Marathon on May 5 to honor the 11 people killed in the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in 2018. 

Zev Rosenberg was left temporarily paralyzed from a spinal cord injury in 2013.
Zev Rosenberg was left temporarily paralyzed from a spinal cord injury in 2013.

Rosenberg, who first began marathoning at age 49, was moved by the fact that the race this year falls between two Jewish holidays: Yom Hashoah, the day of Holocaust remembrance, and Yom Hazikaron, the Israeli day of remembrance for soldiers and victims of terror.  

HuffPost chatted with Rosenberg about his decision to run the Pittsburgh Marathon, his connection to the tragic Tree of Life attack and what message he hopes to send through his participation. 

Take us back to the time of your injury. What was going through your mind in the days after it happened?

I have an incomplete injury, where the cord is damaged. In that instance, you don’t know what it’s going to be. Maybe you’ll have a full recovery, maybe you’ll have a partial. The only way you’re going to know is to keep hacking away at your abilities and try to see how good you can get and how to better tolerate the injury. 

The time I was actually paralyzed was rough; it wasn’t clear what was going to happen. I try not to think about it so much. When I got to the hospital, nothing changed for three days. On the fourth day, I started to stand and I said, “If I can stand, I can walk. And if I can walk, I can run. Eventually.”

What does it feel like for you today?  

If you could imagine a five-pound weight on one hand, a 10-pound weight on the other, a 15-pound weight on one leg and a 20-pound weight on the other. Each limb is impacted differently. If you’ve ever had a broken arm and have gotten a cast ― at first it kind of feels heavy, then you get used to it. When they take it off, your arm feels like a feather. I don’t get the feather effect, I just get the heavy, getting used to it effect.

Rosenberg after his injury in 2013.
Rosenberg after his injury in 2013.

Why, then, did you decide to keep running? 

I have four kids. When this happened to me, I had to give 100%. Otherwise, what are you teaching your kids? That when things get tough you give up? No, when things get tough, you get tougher.

Also, there were so many people who were involved in helping our family throughout the community that were doing things for us for no other reason than they just wanted me to get as well as possible. The only way I could possibly repay them was to get as well as possible.

There’s also a certain personality type of someone who takes up marathoning at 49 and sticks with it, so there’s a bit of my own personality that just wasn’t going to accept not doing the work.

And why did you choose to run this race to honor the victims from Tree of Life?

There’s a ripple effect of tragedy that happens. There’s the people who are injured, there are the family members, there are the community members, everyone is affected by it. I lost a friend in a shooting in Jerusalem who was very influential to me, and I know how it impacted me, his family; to this day, it’s something people remember. I’ve been in the therapy gym and I know what a long road it is to try to recover; sometimes it never ends. 

An X-ray of Rosenberg's injury.
An X-ray of Rosenberg's injury.

What message do you want to send by running?

The important message is run, respect, remember. Run is the activity, respect for our first responders and guardians who run toward the fire, the shooting, while others are running away ― all the dispatchers, mechanics ― everyone involved deserves our respect, and to remember. We need to remember the victims and that this really happened. There are kids coming up today who have no idea what 9/11 is. This race comes between Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron, that’s the message of memory of that magnitude that we have to have for what happened in this place.