Haredi gym makes for a workout with a difference

Emphasis on modest fitness club latest in community's desire for leisure outlets.

Haredi gym 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Haredi gym 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Picture the scene: A haredi man marches vigorously on a treadmill while reading from the Talmud; a woman dressed from head to toe in heavy, modest clothing participates energetically in a belly dancing class, the velvet snood covering her hair bobbing in time to the beat; and toned torsos move to a wordless music. Rows of prayer books instead of the usual modern magazines and books at the coffee bar. You have just entered KosherGym in Jerusalem's Givat Shaul neighborhood, where anything goes in the name of tzniut (modesty) and fitness. The capital's haredi community continues to demand a wider selection of leisure and lifestyle services. It started with a chain of gourmet restaurants across the city boasting superior kosher food and fine wines. Then came the opening of the first "kosher theater" at the Gerard Behar Center in July 2004. Its founder, Shuli Rend, the haredi actor who wrote and starred in Ushpizin, went on to open an acting school for Orthodox youth. It seems the religious Jews of Jerusalem now want a piece of the world's ever growing fixation on fitness and diet - kosher and low fat, of course. The Orthodox segment of this fiercely competitive industry can be traced back to the Rambam, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, who wrote that a man should exhaust his body before breakfast and stick to a healthy diet. Rabbi Yechezkel Ischayek, author of Healthy Life According to the Halacha and Life Without Smoking According to the Torah, says, "People today want to eat, and they don't eat right, so they gain weight or get sick. They think that working out is the solution to their problems, when according to the Rambam, 80 percent of our health is based on a healthy diet and only 20% on maintaining the body." Ischayek goes on to say, "Today's ultra-Orthodox want to enjoy everything western society has to offer. Gyms and fitness are one way to solve health issues, but it's not the recommended one." Dr. Yohai Hakak, a researcher on haredi society at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, says that although Judaism opposes "body worship," modern ideas about health and physique have penetrated even the most segregated groups in society, including haredim. "Western values call for shaping your body and foster an image-driven culture, and ideas about looking good have seeped into haredi society. By calling such places 'health institutes,' it supposedly makes them more acceptable, i.e. primarily focused on keeping people healthy. However, what goes unsaid but is perhaps the true motivation behind the introduction of such health clubs, is that when all said and done, a nice figure and appearance are the real desired qualities for finding your match," Hakak said. David Melki is KosherGym's general manager and instructor in Tae Kwon Do and Freestyle Fighting. He is also a five-time Israeli Body Building champion and Orthodox. Melki says the gym was opened in response to a gap in the market. "Until a year ago, the gym, then known as "Fitness," was located on Strauss Street [in an ultra-Orthodox area], but it was small. We moved here to make the place accessible to a wider range of religious clients who wanted to work out but didn't have any place to go." While two similar gyms, one for men and one for women, operate in Brooklyn's Midwood neighborhood, and a few smaller Israeli gyms serve a religious clientele, the KosherGym in Jerusalem seems to have set a new standard for "Orthodox fitness." A small coffee bar stands to the left of the reception desk. Inside, there are rows of hi-tech exercise machines. Two more sizable rooms host a wide range of classes that rivals anything at a secular gym. Minor changes are made to maintain the "kosher atmosphere"; the women attend "Eastern Dance" rather than a belly dancing class. The gym's clientele, the majority of whom are Orthodox, pay annual membership fees of NIS 2,900 to 2,600. By 12:30 p.m., the women are urged to hurry up and leave before the men's classes begin. Three types of men use the gym, according to Melki: "Men who used to work out regularly, especially Europeans and Americans; men who are forced to work out due to medical conditions or weight problems; and professional athletes who live in Jerusalem and need a serious, well-equipped gym to support their profession." "Most of the men who work out here do not really care how they would look at the beach," says Jim Poodiack, a men's trainers at the gym who immigrated from Atlanta four and a half years ago. "They mostly exercise for fitness and health, not so much for how they look. "The big difference is that the men here don't have such a strong sports background. They come here looking for a little more help in their diet and guidance on how to exercise," he said. Things are similar at the women's gym, but there are differences because most of these women will have at least five or six children during their lifetime. They are often exercising during or just after a pregnancy. "We try to give every woman a program that is appropriate to her specific needs, for her body, for her lifestyle, where she came from and what experience she has had, both in exercise and in her everyday life," says Rita Fuchs, manager of the women's program. "We have women here who have given birth to 10 children, women who are pregnant and women who have to carry heavy bags and do a lot of house working." What, then, apart from gender separation makes this place different from any other gym? The people who come to work out at the KosherGym do not have TV screens to stare at, which leaves them with the option of getting to know new people. "What's special about this gym is that the people here become a group and they are more friendly to each other. Sooner or later, you see them come in twos or threes at a time. As a group, they go on a treadmill and exercise together," says Fuchs. In addition, the background music is has no lyrics. "A lot of the women bring their own tapes of parenting classes, which they listen to with headphones, and a few of the women say Tehilim [Psalms] when they go on some of the machines," she says. KosherGym offers the mothers a free babysitting service. "This allows them to come and work out without be bothered, and to be consistent with their program," says Ornit Or, a secular trainer who works at the gym. Or believes the gym's unique nature has to do with the members themselves. "Here they have the chance to work on things that are usually missed in other gyms, like strengthening the lower back or the pelvic floor, which tend to weaken after several births," she says. One haredi mother of 10 who has been coming to the gym three times a week for six months emphasizes the privacy issue. "I went to university and worked in places where men also worked, but this is different and the privacy here is important to me as a woman," she says, declining to disclose her name for reasons of modesty. Hinda Bronner, an Orthodox trainer, says the real charm of KosherGym is that "the women here are not working out to get a perfect body or a flat belly. They really want to be healthier. When someone is working to get a perfect body, no matter what her motivation is, eventually she'll become competitive and angry at not reaching her goal. That doesn't happen here. Here you'll find a greater emotional completeness."