The rise of Fitness Zionism

While the conversation about Zionism going on in many places around the world is about the legitimacy of Israel and the Zionist endeavor, at home in Israe the focus is more on what kind of Zionism to pursue--and how. Young Anglos, who have been coming to Israel in larger numbers since the end of the Second Intifada, are currently shaping both the perception and expression of Zionism in Israel today.


Among them is a love of exercise--though with young amateur athletes running marathons, completing Tough Mudders, or snatching triple-digit weights, "exercise," with its get-your-heart-rate-going innuendo, might not be the right term. 


Bone-crushing, muscle-tearing, limit-bursting athletics does a better job of describing the kind of approaches these people are doggedly pursuing. 


Maayan Moskow came to Israel from Philadelphia to fulfill (his own version of) the Zionist dream. With lots of passion but little in the way of the actual Israeli "roots" he was supposed to be reconnecting with, Moskow had to find a way to connect. So he looked to one of his great loves from back home -- Crossfit, the approach to elite athletics that places a heavy emphasis on community. 


Moskow and his Crossfit Tel Aviv co-founder, Yonie Schweitzer, a native New Yorker and elite kickboxing champion, are reshaping Tel Aviv''s fitness landscape. Based out of the city''s infamous Kikar Atarim, Moskow and Schweitzer have developed what they call "fitness Zionism."


The central principle of fitness Zionism is simple, maybe even seemingly obvious: "Zionism is about a Jewish people living in a Jewish homeland," Moskow says. "But for a Jewish people to exist into the future, it has to be healthy and viable." 


Looking at current or emerging trends in Israel, like sharply increasing obesity rates, enlistment into the IDF by ultra-Orthodox who may have never run a mile (let alone complete a "massa" in full battle gear), and the erosion of Anglos who make aliyah but in the end don''t manage to find a genuine community for themselves, the "obviousness" of viability is more wishful thinking than reality.


The reality that Crossfit Tel Aviv offers is a daily reality. It''s not a one-off hip hop event by the Jewish Agency (a great tool for inspiring contempt for that organization among Anglos who can''t get jobs), and it''s not a poetic reality of Zionism-in-the-sky or on the wheat fields of yore.


It''s a place where regular people in Israel can go every day to better themselves with people who are there for the same reason. Is not this the essence of Zionism, schematically stated?


"Community is the key word," Moskow says." It''s a selling point. Israelis don''t get it yet. They say,  ''What do I need a community for?''" 


Israelis don''t get it because they already have it. Any given Israeli workplace is also a quasi-family, complete with its quibbles and shouting matches. Israeli childhood friends become high school sweethearts become honeymooners. It''s called the hevruta--the gang, the club, the crew, the Jewish ''hood.


But newcomers are often left to blow in the winds of Israeli culture, which is why Crossfit Tel Aviv has become grown so rapidly (it''s amassed nearly 200 members in its first year). And the litmus for its success? "This is how I know I''ve fulfilled the vision of Fitness Zionism: When someone says to me ''I stayed in Israel because I don''t want to leave this community''," Moskow says. But I disagree. 


In Tel Aviv today, there is a place where Israelis and Anlgos come together to train; where young Israeli female athletes, like the utterly fierce kickboxing champ, Adi Rotem, come to hone their skills (I''ve seen Adi doing double-unders; believe me, she''s a pro); where "lonely soldiers" from abroad gear up for a stint in the IDF; where visiting Europeans head in for a workout; and where Arab teens come to bulk up. 


It''s Zionism, on the ground. It''s Zionism today--not militant, not apologetic, not theoretical, not hypocritical. It''s a Zionism that wants to ensure, as Moskow tells me, that Israel "never gets shut out of [medals at] the Olympics again." That wants to break Tel Aviv''s infamous bubble by pushing on it from within. In other words, it''s already a success.


"This week," Moskow says, "we had a 16-year-old Arab kid from Jaffa come train with us. No one cares--or at least I hope no one cares. He''s a typical 16-year-old kid--he looks at the girls when they come in, and he wants to be strong. Again, isn''t that a part of the Zionist dream--living together in harmony?"


Ashley Rindsberg is the author of Tel Aviv Stories.