In the Jewish community, we believe in taking care of each other. While we have
demonstrated this commitment in numerous ways – like visiting the sick and
helping the less fortunate – we’ve neglected to take care of our
Like all Americans, members of the Jewish community have been
eating more and moving less, and we’ve suffered the consequences.
secret that we have a foodcentric culture, in which celebrations and holidays
involve elaborate meals full of fat and calories.
We like to cook and eat
but we don’t like to exercise very much, and unfortunately, we’re unwittingly
passing this onto our kids.
Physical activity levels in Jewish schools
are lower than in secular schools because of the dual Jewish and secular
curriculum, which doesn’t allow sufficient time for gym and health classes. Many
Orthodox schools have even fewer physical activities because of limitations on
coed exercise. Although our lack of exercise and poor diet stem in large part
from cultural issues, we’ve left the health and wellness initiatives up to
non-Jewish organizations, which don’t always understand our culture and the
reasons that our health is declining.
The good news is that many
non-Jewish organizations can serve as great models for how to create these types
of programs in our community. For example, The Alliance for a Healthier
Generation aims to reduce childhood obesity through programs in which schools,
families and doctors empower kids to make healthier choices. Another example is
Action for Healthy Kids, which galvanizes children, schools and communities to
promote education about nutrition and fitness.
While these organizations
serve the general population, the Jewish community as a whole lacks similar
resources. The troubling fact is that, after hours of Google research, I was
able to find just five Jewish organizations working to improve our community’s
health through fitness and nutrition. To continue our altruistic tradition of
helping each other, we need to create more Jewish wellness initiatives while
doing everything we can to support those that already exist.
Community Health Initiative (JCHI) is one of the best examples of Jewish
organizations that work to improve health by emphasizing fitness and
The organization, led by Dr.
Mendel Singer, a professor
of public health at the Case Western Reserve Medical School, is cultivating
partnerships with Jewish communities across the country to create a Jewish
health movement. Dr.
Singer’s goal is to focus on disease prevention
through healthy living, rather than disease treatment, which many other Jewish
organizations are already working on.
One of the JCHI’s latest partners
is Camp Zeke, a new Jewish overnight camp in Pennsylvania that focuses on
fitness, organic food and healthy cooking.
Campers can throw on an apron
and cook with a professional chef, participate in energizing fitness activities,
like strength training and dance, and in the process, join a community of
like-minded peers. Camp Zeke is also establishing a series of year-round cooking
and fitness seminars for a mini version of the summer experience.
other examples of Jewish organizations that do work in the area are the Isabella
Freedman Jewish Retreat Center and Hazon (two organizations that just merged),
and the Jewish Family and Children’s Service. Isabella Freedman has historically
hosted programs such as Torah Yoga, adult weight loss camps and food
Hazon aims to create “healthier, more sustainable
communities” by spearheading the Jewish food movement. The organization raises
awareness through physical activities like cross-country bike rides. For its
part, the Jewish Family and Children’s Service runs a nutrition program that has
expanded across the country since its founding.
While these organizations
are doing admirable work, we as a community need to strengthen them, talk about
them, help them grow, and hopefully inspire more social entrepreneurs to so
similar work. As we proceed, let’s remember that, throughout history, some of
the greatest Jewish minds have stressed that physical health is a core component
of our Jewish identity. Let’s act on this message and make the Jewish teaching
of shmirat haguf – or taking care of the body – part of our daily conversations
with community members.
The writer is a graduate student of public health
who is working closely with Camp Zeke, a new Jewish overnight camp that immerses
kids in pure foods, energizing fitness activities and culinary arts.