This week’s issue of the Jewish Link is focused on fitness and health education; a perfect opportunity to present the following humble rant of a frum personal trainer.
Week after week, I continually find myself in awe of our beloved rabbanim who give so much of their time and selves to serve their respective communities, preparing presentation after presentation to invigorate us all. Sitting attentively in shul, I generally find the words of our leaders inspiring and motivating, instilling in me a sense of purpose; moving me to be a better person, a better Jew, a better husband, a better father and a better son. As I look around my own community and those Orthodox communities throughout Bergen County and further afield, I would postulate we’re generally heading in the right direction—improving, growing, developing, and evolving. Their precious words are having an impact.
However, as I proudly look around the shuls, I also notice something else, something concerning, something saddening… people’s ever expanding waistlines and neglected bodies. In a country where more than a third of adults and approximately 17% of children and adolescents aged 2-19 are obese, it appears the trend has not escaped our own Jewish communities. In this extended article, I don’t intend to examine the obesity epidemic in the U.S. Rather, I would like to discuss our own role as frum Jews in adding our own numbers to these sobering statistics. I would also stress that the comments herein are not directed toward any particular shul or community; rather, these issues appear to me to be endemic.
Many years ago, it was explained to me, half in jest, that the root of Jewish festivals can be summarized as follows: “We won, we eat; we lost, we fast.” While we all know there’s a lot more to our holidays than that, it does highlight what is, as is true in many other cultures, so important to our religion and way of life: food.
From celebratory kiddushim to the seuda ha’mafseket; from seudot mitzvah to the seudat ha’vraah; from doughnuts and latkes on Chanukah to matzoh and wine on Pesach; and from cheesecake on Shavuot to honey on Rosh Hashanah, food is nourishing, food is symbolic, food is comforting, food is emblematic of our role as spiritual beings living on a physical plane. But we must do as our bodies do: learn to distinguish the good from the bad; imbibing the positive from the world around us, and expelling the negative.
But we also have a mitzvah to guard our souls (Venishmartem Meod Lenafshoteichem [Devarim 4:15]), to maintain our bodies, to respect the vessel in which our holy essence resides. How important is this task to us? Do we place even a fraction of the value of a healthy diet and exercise against the eternal merit and virtue of a moment of Torah study? How long can we expect to serve Hashem in a decrepit and ailing body?
Unfortunately, I think we’re failing, both as individuals and as communities, to adequately address and safeguard this important mitzvah.
Our shuls have become, in large part, meeting places to socialize and eat, with the weekly Shabbat kiddush increasingly becoming the focal point of our gatherings. Being able to celebrate a joyous occasion with the community with good food and merriment is a wonderful blessing from Hashem; hedonistic abandon and disregard of the mitzvah to be healthy, however, is not what I would contend our smachot should portray. Nosh and often alcohol is plentiful, to be sure, but can we not have a more nutritious balance? (And cholent hardly counts). Let us provide ourselves and our families with a thoughtful array of treats that offer both soulful enjoyment and physical benefit. When we celebrate together, and the only foods presented are those that are deleterious to our health, what message do we give our children?
Moreover, it seems to me that the nature of the infamous shul “Candy Man” has changed somewhat from when I was younger. The relationship between the older and younger generation, the former inspiring the latter with a single piece of candy and a friendly smile, has now morphed into a relationship between our children and the candy itself. Don’t misunderstand me, there is value to sweetening the shul experience for our youngsters, giving them an incentive and some physical enjoyment when they’re in shul. But handing out candy with no strings attached, or even worse, letting them take as much as they like, is not something, in my opinion, that should be commended. It should be expected that each child say “Good Shabbos” and “please” before being allowed a piece of candy, and I mean a single piece, to be then followed by a “thank you.” We may only be able to hope for appreciation from our children, but we should always expect respect from them. In all instances, our children should understand that candy is a treat to be eaten in moderation, not a right they have to claim in abundance, nor a reward for good behavior. This is not a criticism of our children; it’s a castigation of us adults— we should know better!
The place for candy and junk food in all our lives should be questioned; consuming anything in considered moderation is good and proper, but unfettered access and expectation of physical pleasure cannot be good for either us or our children.
We can’t send our children mixed messages; they’re too smart for that. We can’t preach a healthy diet in our schools, but then allow them to sell only junk food for their graduation trip fundraiser. We can’t expect them to respect their bodies, when we as parents hardly exercise and show little restraint regarding what enters our mouths.
Our focus on food is compounded by our lack of focus on exercise. Throughout all my many years of schooling and spiritual education, yeshiva and shul attendance, I’ve attended thousands of lessons, lectures, drashas, sermons, and shiurim with themes as varied as halacha, hashkafa, mussar, textual analysis, history and philosophy. I’ve been enjoined, time and time again, to learn more Torah, give more charity, support more community programs, and raise a Jewish family. Unfortunately, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been instructed to look after my body, to exercise, to strive to be healthier. Why? Why don’t our rabbis, our parents, and our peers stress the importance of maintaining our physical health in addition to our spiritual health? We encourage so much learning in our communities, and that’s highly commendable, but we hardly promote maintaining a healthy body. Sporadic single-gender fitness classes in shul social halls are a good start, but in our communities there should be just as many exercise classes as there are shiurim. If we don’t maintain our bodies, how can we expect to develop our neshamot?
The kashrut of a food should not concern us more than whether we should be eating it at all.
I urge each and every one of us to examine our spiritual relationship with our own bodies, and to reassess the importance and priority of maintaining a healthy lifestyle as Orthodox Jews.
Chemmie Sokolic is an ACSM-certified Personal Trainer, and owner of Frum & Fit LLC. Chemmie can be reached at chemmie.sokolic_frumandfit.com. Visit www.FrumandFit.com or www.Facebook.com/FrumandFit for more information.
By Chemmie Sokolic