Spinning as a way of life

Ellen's light is out too soon.

FLY LIKE a bird: YMCA staff, 2019. Ellen is in the third row, second from right, with glasses on her head.  (photo credit: RENA SERED)
FLY LIKE a bird: YMCA staff, 2019. Ellen is in the third row, second from right, with glasses on her head.
(photo credit: RENA SERED)
"Ellen was warm, kind and fun, there for you in her quiet, modest way. Sometimes we saw each other frequently and sometimes less, but my world was brighter because Ellen was a part of it. A light has gone out – the light that emanated from her smile and her twinkling eyes... I will forever feel fortunate that for a while, I could bask in that light,” writes Robin Press, a friend and fitness partner.
Ellen Grishman (also known as Ellen Ben-Chaim) was a spinning instructor and personal trainer at Jerusalem’s YMCA since 1997. She grew up in St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands, and immigrated to Israel in the 1990s. Her career in fitness began more than 30 years ago.
When her sister, Allison, joined her on aliyah, Ellen told her, “If you’re going to come to my gym, you have to love spinning.” Fortunately, Allison tried it and loved it, and has been spinning and cycling since.
Ask indoor or outdoor cyclists at the YMCA and probably at many other gyms in Jerusalem who got them on a bike and most will answer excitedly, “Ellen!”
This is certainly true for me. I met Ellen 20 years ago, when we were both teaching in a small gym in Har Nof called Trim N’ Slim. The owner, Rita Fuchs, recalls Ellen fondly.
“I was a few years older than Ellen, but I had no knowledge and experience in fitness. Ellen took me under her wing and trained me herself. For most of our [haredi/ultra-Orthodox] clientele, the world of exercise was unknown, even a bit off-putting, but once she came into the room with her beautiful smile and warm welcome, everyone was put at ease. She had so much patience and never made us feel like we inconvenienced her with our many questions or when we had trouble with new exercises.”
After Trim N’ Slim closed, Ellen and I moved to a gym called Swan, on Emek Refaim Street. I was hesitant to cycle. I taught yoga, dabbled in other cardio and weight machines, and gaggled in awe at my tall, blond colleague, who seemed to look stronger and fitter every year. I’d hear the shouts and music blasting from the spinning room and shake my head at “those crazy biking ladies.”
After much encouragement, I finally went to her spinning class. My eyes couldn’t quite keep track with how fast her legs were spinning, which also matched the rhythm of the upbeat, pulsating music, and how she inspired and instructed everyone to follow a clearly outlined routine she had meticulously prepared. I was overwhelmed and mesmerized by her and the class.
Attending fitness lectures and conferences (especially about cycling), listening to cycling podcasts, reading fitness and cycling magazines, and obviously, spending endless hours cycling on trails and roads, Ellen methodically and determinedly became one of the best female cyclists in Israel, and probably has an impressive world record as well, though she would never say.
BIKING FROM Jerusalem to Beit Shemesh (and back!), to the Dead Sea (and back!), days in the Hermon, weeks in Italy, following the Tour de France, the Dolomites! No trail was too challenging. She’d figure it out, inch by inch, muscle by muscle, heartbeat by heartbeat. Spinning and cycling to Ellen was her nature, her goal, her starting point, her beginning, middle and end. Every aspect of it was documented. Every minute of the rides was calculated in heartbeats, watts and measurements.
When I first understood her commitment to cycling, I was afraid to attend her spinning classes. How could I keep up? I would be proud of myself for running 5K or standing on my head for 60 seconds in yoga. Yet Ellen’s quiet and encouraging manner inspired not only me, but hundreds of others as well.
After a while, I was hooked. Yes, I needed to nap the first couple of times. But her energy – motivating routines and boundless energy – wrapped in her sweet and encouraging smile kept me coming back.
As her friend Marlene Mazel said, “Ellen knew how to motivate and lead by example.”
At the YMCA, I’d see Ellen in the fitness room, lifting heavy weights next to muscled men, privately training clients. I was motivated. Ellen became my personal trainer. My life changed forever.
She taught me the science of spinning, the beauty of a swimming routine, how to challenge myself in HIIT (high intensity interval training), how to lift weights, set goals, stay motivated. We discussed nutrition and physical therapy exercises for those tender spots. Every time I entered the fitness room, I hoped she would be there.
Whether I was running, cycling or lifting weights, whether she was with me or not, I’d hear her encouraging words, “You can do this. You are so strong, so beautiful.” I still hear it.
She changed people’s lives in a million good ways. In every conversation with her, you were likely to walk away with another helpful tip about cycling, nutrition, stretching, weight lifting, or just how to smile when things aren’t always going your way.
Her friend Lois Leibowitz recalls, “I made aliyah 10 years ago. I knew no one and spoke no Hebrew! I was lost. I immediately found Swan and Ellen’s class. Suddenly, I didn’t feel lost. Ellen was welcoming and fun! She became my trainer and my friend. She helped me not only feel healthier and stronger but encouraged me to train for the 10K and take up swimming (again).”
Ellen seemed to create time. She customized training sessions for clients, analyzed and stuck to her own rigorous training schedule, babysat her grandsons in the Tel Aviv area, cared for her family at home, always had a smile on her face, and loved making time for coffee with a friend. She did all this and more.
Her friend Debby Sobelson stated, “She was always full of light.”
Lorraine Krell, a friend and colleague, shared these words directed at Ellen: “I remember when the Women’s Club brought spinning to Jerusalem because of you. Your enthusiasm was infectious and everyone you met wanted to spin because of you. You told me about your love of biking and... I had to buy a bike. You came to Andreas’s shop to help me buy my first bike. You biked with me for hours, even though you were a much more experienced and stronger rider. You helped me train for the Dolomites!
“When I needed help, you would meet me for coffee, get out your training books and help create a training schedule, all with love and an amazing smile. After overcoming a difficult period in your life, I went to your spinning class, and you played the song ‘Fly Like a Bird’ and I knew your soul was finally free. Then you married Andreas, and I knew you were happy and your soul was completed. You’d found your other half, your biking and life companion.”
ON TUESDAY, July 28, Ellen and Andreas took their bikes to the hills behind Tzur Hadassah, as they had done hundreds of times. But this time, Ellen’s bike wheel got stuck on the ridges of the road – or something like that. We’ll never really know. We know that she was thrown from her bike and the impact caused severe head injury, even with a helmet. Magen David Adom came immediately, but it was too late. We lost our cycling leader, and her family lost their beloved mom and devoted “Lellie,” as her grandsons called her.
Rena Sered, YMCA’s fitness director, stated, “Ellen was an inspiration to us all. Her professional excellence in cycling was one of the driving forces taking our power spin classes to the next level, using watts and cadence to help our participants improve performance. Her passion for fitness was infectious and she guided many of us to lead a healthier lifestyle.”
YMCA customer experience manager and friend Estee Rose-Barak remembers, “As an instructor and as a friend, Ellen was an unpretentious superpower. Our ever-sporty bubbly blond was a wealth of knowledge, eager to share with colleagues and clients alike, with no airs about her.”
After years of Ellen encouraging me to become a cycling instructor, I will finally become one. I will hear her voice in my head every class I give, only sorry that we did not get to do this, and so much more, together.
Facing tremendous challenges of her own, Ellen shared very little of her struggles. A woman of grace, of power, beauty and kindness, she had kind word for absolutely everyone. The world is a darker place without her. As her son Yoel Grishman, 26, movingly said at the funeral, “You were supposed to outlive us all.”
Fly like a bird in the heavens, our dear friend, colleague, mentor. You were taken too soon.
Ellen leaves behind four children, her husband Andreas Bokser, four beautiful grandsons, a sister and her mother in Florida. Yehi zichra baruch, may her memory be a blessing.
The writer is a yoga instructor at the YMCA and the pedagogical director for Mosaic United, a partnership with the Diaspora Affairs Ministry.
The YMCA will hold an annual outdoor spinning marathon in Ellen’s memory. Contact rena@ymca.org.il for more information.
Note from editor Erica Schachne: I experienced the magic of Ellen over the past few years when I regularly attended her spinning classes. Not only did she inspire me to push harder, her choice in music and words of wisdom would invigorate me throughout the day. Her powerful yet soothing presence will be greatly missed.