Devoted to exercise

An increase in haredi membership at gyms augurs well for the shape of things to come.

Religious Gym 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Religious Gym 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
In the new locker room of the gym, a glossy brown wig hangs among the jackets and scarves on the coat rack, while the resident babysitter wheels a stroller in and out and a member recites Psalms in the corner. In the fitness room, women are running on treadmills and pedaling furiously on elliptical machines. Downstairs, men coming in from a day at yeshiva are doing the same.
“In our community, we have a lot of celebrations where people eat all the time,” says gym regular Nava Eiznbach, a haredi woman who has been going to the Jump Health & Fitness Center in Binyenei Ha’uma four or five times a week for the past three months. “You should have the knowledge that exercise is healthy,” she says. “It gives me a lot of energy, it’s very healthy, and I’m losing weight now,” she continues, noting that the gym does wonders for women after pregnancy.
“They have a lot of courses: dancing, aerobics – the schedule is around the clock. I really can’t live without it; I look forward to it every day.”
Staff members at Jump and the men-only Kosher Gym in Givat Shaul – two of Jerusalem’s biggest gyms that attract sizeable religious populations – say that over the past couple of years they have seen a marked increase in haredi membership as the larger community shifts some of its priorities to focus more on bodily health as part of overall spiritual well-being.
As doctors and rabbis continue to advocate physical fitness, word spreads among friends about which places have comfortable workout facilities according to their religious standards. Meanwhile, memberships are becoming more affordable, as gym managements around the country are negotiating with health funds to find ways to subsidize costs.
“There is a large demand for haredi men and women to join because the gym addresses the separation between men and women,” says Michael Elgrably, the owner and manger of Jump for the past year and a half.
Elgrably comes from a family that owns two pharmaceutical companies where he serves as marketing manager, and owning a gym is part of his goal of “promoting people to live healthier” and integrate sports into their nutritional routines.
Since he took over the gym, Elgrably says that women’s membership jumped from 540 to 920, while men’s rose from 532 to 923, and he is certain that haredim make up a large portion of the over 70 percent membership increase.
“Doctors are motivating the men and women, especially yeshiva men, to start moving because they sit and eat, and sit and eat,” Elgrably says. “Their cholesterol gets high, and the food they eat is fatty. So for health reasons, their doctors are advising that they work out.
But they’re limited in terms of where they can go. And here is a place that meets their needs.”
BUT JOINING a gym wasn’t always popular within the haredi population – not only wasn’t it popular, but it was largely seen as taboo, something that would detract from learning and spirituality.
“Generally, this is a community that emphasizes the fact that man is made out of godly materials and has a godly origin and that man’s role in this world is to somehow unite with this origin,” says Dr. Yohai Hakak, senior lecturer and researcher on haredi society at the School of Health Sciences and Social Work at the University of Portsmouth in England, who completed his PhD at the Hebrew University and his post-doc at Ben-Gurion University. “And how do you unite with this spiritual origin? You do that through two ways – you minimize to a maximum your interaction with those earthly aspects, and you try to embed yourself in a spiritual environment.
“This earthly body is in a special and complicated tension. So the religious ruling tries to regulate it – on the one hand minimize the amount of energy and time that you’re allowed to spend on those bodily issues but on the other hand try to ensure this vessel will stay healthy and will continue to contain the soul in a healthy manner. So the only reason to deal with your body and to satisfy its needs is to keep it working as a vessel for your soul. This is why you’re not supposed to spend any extra time on ‘cultivating your body.’” And now, he says, haredim have become more open to “cultivating” their bodies – for health reasons and because they have adapted to modern Israeli society, which, for men, includes an increased emphasis on the “physical aspects of masculinity” from places like the military.
“Why can’t they avoid these influences? Because they are human beings,” Hakak says, But he adds that they too, in their “ability to delay gratification,” to discipline themselves to study for hours on end in yeshiva, also contribute “something that is very valuable in the wider Israeli context,” what he calls a “gentle masculinity.”
Among men and women alike, an increasing awareness about the importance of bodily and mental wellbeing has been quite a pivotal factor in changing the minds of rabbis and communities.
“Now they can claim that for health reasons you should and you need spend time on your body – and this is what many do. it’s not a coincidence in many instances that these gyms are called ‘health centers,’” Hakak says.
Tzvi Hendels, manager of the Bu’ot Center in Ashdod, provided a course last year that granted two certificates in fitness training to its primarily haredi graduates, based out of the Jerusalem Institute for the Blind in Kiryat Moshe. The course began with a 100-hour training preparation period because “simply not everyone from our community is in shape,” Hendels explains in a JPost TV video in December 2009. Currently, the Bu’ot center is working on opening a treatment gym in Ashdod, “for people who are overweight, who most probably would have heart problems if they go on like this,” an assistant to Hendels tells In Jerusalem. Meanwhile, they are planning to begin another fitness training course as well as a hydrotherapy course soon, probably in Ashdod this time.
“We have taken out the word ‘sport’ from swimming and from the gym and put the word ‘health’ in its place,” he tells JPost TV.
“Swimming is healthy, working out is healthy. The haredi community doesn’t like the word ‘sport’ and won’t take part in sports. The community does want anything that is connected to health.”
But meanwhile, back at Binyenei Hauma, Jump’s managers say they attempt to provide that feeling of safety and modesty to their customers by creating an upstairs floor for women only, complete with all the equipment available downstairs, which has mixed hours for most of the day but becomes men-only at night. There are zones with full cable television, areas with no television, and sections with educational programming only, to cater to all comfort levels.
The gym is not only a place for physical fitness for the haredi population, but it can also be an opportunity for socialization, Elgrably says. Some members participate in a special program where they come together from kollel or yeshiva as a group.
“They don’t go out to the cinema or parties – this is their outlet,” he says.
One particular incentive that has encouraged haredi women to join Jump is the availability of free babysitting services, says Elgrably.
“Often after giving birth, women suffer from postpartum depression, but they don’t have to stay home all the time. They can leave the baby with our babysitter and work on themselves and get in shape again,” he explains. “A husband may give his wife a gym membership as a gift after she has given birth. She’ll go work out and feel good, and he’ll feel good about that as well.”
Even the teachers take advantage of the babysitting feature: “I have a person here to take care of my son, and I can teach. I still want him with me,” Polsky says.
KOSHER GYM, the fitness center in Givat Shaul, limits its facilities to men only. In the near future, however, owner David Melki plans to open a women’s center nearby with equivalent features.
On the wall of Melki’s office is a certificate of approval for the gym from the haredi rabbinate, the only one of its kind in the world thus far, he says. Just inside the gym’s entrance is a kosher cafeteria, where members can also attend minha and ma’ariv services.
Like Jump, Kosher Gym is filled with top-of-the-line equipment. It also boasts a martial arts studio, as well as a climbing wall treadmill. Melki was a champion on Israel’s national martial arts team, which inspired him to open a studio in 1992 and then a haredi gym on Rehov Straus near Mea She’arim in 1997. He opened his current location in 2005.
One difference between the workout spaces at Kosher Gym and Jump is that there are no television screens, even though Melki says that some rabbis would approve channels like National Geographic, the news or daily Torah lessons. But Melki decided to have no televisions at all, which he says actually gives members a more personalized, interactive workout experience.
“When you’re in front of the TV on your treadmill, you’re by yourself. Here, we take care of you,” he says.
“Why should I let you be in front of the TV for one hour if I can help you and talk to you?” Another smaller gym – for women only – that emphasizes the personal approach is Curves, with seven locations in Jerusalem. Two are mainly used by haredi women, who make up 85% of the members at the Givat Shaul location, and 100% at Arzei Habira, says Givat Shaul manager Katherine Amrani.
At Curves, women can enjoy specialized, internationally patented 30-minute circuit workouts that feature intervals of high-speed exercise alternating with breaks, all performed in a circle around an instructor.
“It’s for women who want a support group to work out in,” Amrani says. “In regular gyms you’re kind of anonymous. Here at Curves, we have a community. We’re a circle. There’s always a coach in the middle supervising how you use your body.”
The Curves workout is quick and effective, making it perfect for “women who don’t have lots of time,” says Amrani. “A lot of [haredi] women have many children, and there’s more awareness now that taking care of yourself gives you a lot more energy.”
Nava Guetta, her counterpart at the second location, says she has not seen a large increase in membership since she moved her branch from Ramat Eshkol to Arzei Habira two months ago, but she is hopeful she will see one soon. “I see that more people are interested, and a lot of women are coming and asking; but I think a lot of them don’t have the money to pay for it,” Guetta says.
Another facility, Lady Giraffe in Romema’s Center One, is also supposedly quite popular among haredi women, but the management was unavailable for comment.
NO MATTER which of these gyms the men and women choose, the managers agree that fitness is a requirement for maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
“I have a lot of haredi people who don’t know what it means to run on a treadmill,” Melki says. “They don’t know what the body is about. So we need to teach them and provide them with training.”
Some Kosher Gym members have gone on to compete and even win first place in bodybuilding competitions. “I’m not pushing them to do this,” says Melki. “If you want to be a champion, you will be a champion; but if you want to just work on your back, you do that. My goal is primarily health.”
Both Jump and Kosher Gym are influenced by Maimonides, who wrote a lot about the importance of physical fitness. “‘As long as a person works out, no sickness comes upon him’ – that’s one of our biggest mottos this year,” says Liff.
Similarly, a Maimonides quote is featured on the homepage of Kosher Gym’s website.
But recognizing how financially prohibitive it can be for local Jerusalem families to fulfill this need for fitness, many of the gym owners are talking to the health funds about partially subsidizing gym membership.
“We’re in the process of closing a deal with an insurance company to pay for part of the memberships. It’s the first time in Israel that something like this will happen,” Elgrably says, stressing, however, that Jump is not the only gym involved in such negotiations.
Because the deal is not yet final, Elgrably could not disclose which health fund he was closing with, but he says that any member of that fund who pays for the supplemental monthly insurance could join Jump for half the cost. He has also begun negotiations with another health fund, which he attributes to the “snowball effect.”
“Insurance companies checked out the population that came here, and they work with haredim a lot,” he says.
Guetta from Curves also says that her gym is about to close a similar deal with one of the health funds, and Melki says that he is in initial talks about partial subsidies. “Today you have stomach stapling – do you know how much it costs for a health fund to provide that?” Melki asks. “We approached the health fund and said, ‘Why wouldn’t you want to just pay a few hundred shekels a year here instead?’ The health funds have been putting their money in the wrong place.”
To ensure maximum health improvements among his Kosher Gym members, Melki has a physical therapist onsite, as well as a trainer and a fitness adviser who work with the clientele individually.
“On a monthly basis, we check how much fat a member has in his body, and then we take his measurements, compare them with his previous ones and check his weight and see whether this person is progressing,” says Michael Kiel, the club’s Wingate Institutecertified fitness adviser. If the man’s body fat percentage goes up, the trainers help him restructure his diet, says Kiel, 65, who served as a paratrooper in the Soviet military.
AT JUMP, one of Elgrably’s plans to further physical fitness is to offer satellite athletic training certification courses through Givat Washington’s physical education program. “They’ll be learning and practicing in the same place,” he says. “Also, the people who come to work out will benefit because people on the machines next to them will be learning how to be trainers.”
While he recognizes the need among Jerusalem’s haredi population to increase exercise, Elgrably and his staff stress that Jump attracts many secular members as well.
“You could come here in the afternoon and see a woman on a treadmill reading Psalms, another woman watching a rabbi’s speech and then, on the other hand, the girls who need MTV,” says Liff. “Everyone finds his or her place.”
For some, Liff says, the separation between the genders is just “more comfortable.”
Even Kosher Gym, with its haredi certification, welcomes secular male members who enjoy the serious workout atmosphere, notes Melki.
But religious or not, Jerusalem’s newest gym goers find that it’s just a matter of convincing oneself to integrate this necessary step into an already busy daily life.
“I was always health conscious, but I was jogging in the streets and I was starting to feel the wear on my knees. But now I’m doing a whole routine,” says Kosher Gym member Yehuda Fogel, 57, a grandfather of 16 who works in hi-tech. “Where I work, they’re all interested. It’s a matter of breaking the ice. Everybody has his routine; they’re all busy. I figured once you start something and you’re in a routine, you’ll keep doing it.”
Kiel recounts that a rabbi came into the gym in desperation a year ago – a 60-year-old yeshiva head who had always told his students that working out was a waste of time when they could have been learning. He had told Kiel, “If I saw a $100 bill lying on the ground, I wouldn’t be able to bend down and pick it up. Reality shows me that I need to invest in myself; otherwise I could reach the point of becoming helpless.”
The rabbi soon began working out with Kiel. “So we started to do exercises,” Kiel says. “After one month he could do one sit-up.
Then after three months, he could do five repeats in three sets. In eight months, he did 26 repeats in five sets.”