De-stressing a tense Holy City

The Shlomo brothers offer the Bar MasterZ physical fitness group free of charge, in hopes calisthenics will take the place of alcohol and violence among riled-up Jerusalem youth

Bar MasterZ physical fitness group (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Bar MasterZ physical fitness group
Amid rising violence and tensions in Jerusalem and growing concern over the eruption of a third intifada, a group led by two 20-something Israelis is offering city youth free workouts and weight training with simple exercise bars, providing them with an opportunity to de-stress and an alternative to drinking, brawls and violence.
The physical fitness group, Bar MasterZ, which was launched last year by two Jerusalem brothers, offers classes in calisthenics, a gymnastic-like exercise relatively new to Israel designed to develop physical health, which is performed with little or no special apparatus or weights.
“Our vision is that everyone in Jerusalem and throughout Israel should know how to use their body to work out free of charge,” said group founder Elad Shlomo. “Why should a workout cost money when – if you know how – you can work out for free?” Shlomo, who stumbled on the sport several years ago when watching a video clip of calisthenics taken abroad, subsequently underwent training at the Wingate Institute, and seeing how it strengthened him, soon decided to further the sport in Israel.
“It was the video clip that changed my life,” he said.
Enlisting his recently discharged brother Uriel in the venture, the pair started their sports club, seeking to spread their knowledge of the sport through - out the capital and the country.
After less than a year, the brothers now offer twice-weekly classes – as well as a free weekly class in Jerusalem’s Sacher Park – mostly attended by high-school students but also by young adults who have heard of the group via word of mouth, friends or Facebook.
“We seek to use this sport as an educational tool, and to create an environment of equality and co - existence in the city,” Uriel Shlomo said. “Anyone who starts our classes gets infected with the calisthenics bug.”
Indeed, the word “calisthenics” comes from the ancient Greek words kállos , which means “beauty,” and sthénos , meaning “strength.”
IT IS a chilly Thursday night in November in Jerusalem. Despite the recent spate of terror attacks, the city center is bustling with young people at bars and cafes at the start of the weekend, drinking, dancing or otherwise hanging out.
Police are out in force, not just as part of in - creased security due to the political situation, but also to the keep the peace and ensure the late-night brawls that break out among inebriated youth – or in potentially more severe cases, scuffles between Jewish and Arab youth – don’t get beyond that.
But at Sacher Park, two dozen of the group’s diehards are having none of that. Undeterred by the crisp weather, and wearing sweats and black tank-tops emblazoned with the Bar MasterZ logo, the group is working the bars as part of the club’s free weekly training session at this site.
Many of the youth out on this night are teenagers who also participate in the group’s twice-weekly classes at the city’s Teddy Stadium, while others are passersby or sports enthusiasts who chanced on the workout and joined in.
“I used to work out alone here in the park, until I saw this group working out and they suggested I join them,” said Guy Rapp, recalling his first encounter with the club last year. “The minute I joined them, I was sold on it.”
Since then, Rapp said, he juggles his schoolwork as a junior in high school – “It’s a busy year” – with the thrice-weekly workout.
Many of the exercisers say the sport offers a much-needed relief from a tense period in Jerusalem, along with a strong support system.
“By its very nature, sport releases tension, leaving you more calm and less nervous,” Rapp said. “I know I will continue with these workouts all my life. It has immense potential for youth.”
“When you do sport here, you can feel a break from all the tensions around,” added Ron Shriki, who will be drafted next year.
“Almost every day, there are police reports of shootings, stabbings or some other commotion,” concurred Benny Ostrovsky. “Even when I come here to the park in the evenings, my mom is worried about me and has me call to tell her I am OK; I am in touch with her 24/7.
“But there is no way I wouldn’t come to my work - out, and I would be so bummed to just sit home and watch TV instead.”
Ostrovsky, who heard about the club from friends on Facebook, had been working out at a gym but was not happy with the results and the lack of camaraderie. “On my first experience here, on a scale of 1 to 10, my impression was 20,” he enthused. “During the week, I can’t wait for the workout days.”
Many of the participants say that in addition to serving as a breather, the sport offers them an alter - native to drinking at bars or just slacking off.
“I would come to the park here when I was troubled or dejected and work out, so as not to go to town and get into stupidity, and to find some framework for my life,” said Zedek Ochion. “Then I met Elad and Uriel here and I immediately saw that their group offered me a framework with quality people, to break out of the binge drinking and other nonsense.”
“There is no way I would miss a workout here,” said Tomer Halbertal, whose beagle accompanied him to the bars. “It relieves the pressures from the whole day.”
“Once you start the workout you forget all the troubles going on here,” added Avner Zilberstein, who is aiming to get in to a combat unit when he enlists in the near future. “I know that when I am free on weekends, I will be here.”
THE TWICE-WEEKLY indoor classes at Teddy Stadium, where participants in their 20s, 30s and 40s work out alongside their younger peers, are divided into beginner and advanced classes, with each hour-long class comprising about two dozen people. An array of exercises including push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups and squats are interspersed with a variety of stretches and a vigorous workout on the bars.
“This sport is so much more fun than going to the exercise room,” said Michal Belhassen, one of a handful of women in the predominantly male crowd. Belhassen, who quit her gym workout in favor of the calisthenics classes offered by the group, said additional women were likely to join as the sport gains traction and attention in Israel.
“Many girls would come if they knew about it,” agreed Inbar Zeldes, who specifically for the classes, makes the trek to Jerusalem from the Center – where she is studying to be a sports instructor at the Win - gate Institute.
“Life is full of stress, and these exercises offer you complete relief,” Zeldes said.
THE BROTHERS say that beyond the classes and the opportunity provided to city youth, their long-term goal is to work with the municipality or other external sources to develop and expand the very basic – or nonexistent – sports facilities at all of Jerusalem’s parks, for the benefit of all of its residents. They would like to develop facilities similar to those at Tel Aviv and Eilat beaches, and in cities around the world.
“This is a one-time, basic investment in simple bars, which would be of immense use to the young people of all sectors in the city,” Uriel Shlomo said.
In a written response, the Jerusalem Municipality said there are 12 city locations, including two parks, where some sports bars are in place, while plans are under way to install some bars at eight additional city sites.
“The sports department of the Jerusalem Municipality is working to put together a multi-year plan to continue to implement the project in a way which will encompass central Jerusalem neighborhoods, and will be applicable to the various sectors in the city,” the statement said.
The sports enthusiasts are hoping that the few existing bars at sports facilities in city parks will be vastly expanded in the near future.
Shlomo said the sport can be a true bridge among Jerusalem’s diverse populations, noting that during a trip to Holland this year he connected via Facebook with a similar group of sports enthusiasts, dubbed Bar Monsters, and was hosted by them.
“We immediately bonded and it just showed the immense potential of sport as a unifying factor, in that it doesn’t matter where you come from or who you are,” he said.
“We want to further a positive environment for the public at large, which will reduce stress for all the various groups in the country: Jews, Arabs and Christians; secular and religious,” said Elad Shlomo.
“Your body is the equipment, your body is the machine – all you need to know is how to use it.”
“We believe that fitness is the key to both internal and external change,” he concluded.