Celebrating Our 57th Birthday

Me on the left, my sister on the right. I was not delicate.

May 24, 1963. My parents weren’t expecting twins, but that is what they got. This was in the days before ultrasound and there were surprises. My sister, Michele, and I are still close even though we live in different states; she works at the University of Michigan and I am an OSU fan, but we still have that twin thing after 57 years.

In a way, it is unbelievable that I am 57. There are things that I think about and say to myself, “that must have been about 15 years ago,” and I realize it was more like 40. My 35th college reunion is this fall. 35! It feels like I was just in high school and I couldn’t wait to get to college, and now my 35th reunion is coming up. It hasn’t gone quickly…until recently when it seems like the weeks just fly by.

This is, of course, a time for reflection for me. When I was younger, I thought 57 was ancient. Now, my brain still thinks like I am in college or even younger. I still find the 3 Stooges hysterical. I can’t say no to pastry. Farts and fart jokes are ALWAYS funny. And I am always looking forward to the next adventure. But every once in a while, my body reminds me that I’m 57.

My life has had its twists and turns since this photo was taken. I was very sick as a teenager with Crohn’s Disease. I had an amazing college experience with lots of travel. I have lived in Colombia, Costa Rica, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, Virginia, Israel and Ohio (for the last 23 years now). I was married, had four kids, and got divorced. I got remarried and picked up a stepdaughter, and am happier than I’ve ever been. I was a rabbi for 25+ years and, while I still am a rabbi (it’s like Herpes–it never goes away), that is only part of who I am as I’ve become a Certified Personal Trainer. I have an amazing extended family as well as friends from the many times and places of my life.

Do I worry about getting older? My biggest worry is not getting older but being unhealthy as I age–either physically or cognitively. I have devoted a big part of my life to staying healthy and helping others to as well. I continue to challenge myself; yesterday I ran a 5k with my 20-year-old stepdaughter, and today I biked 15 miles with my wife. I am always learning new things and planning to someday travel again to exotic and not-so-exotic places.

Fifty seven years has brought me a certain amount of wisdom. Fart jokes are in fact always funny. Aside from that, I understand myself better. I have learned to be less judgmental and to forgive others (and myself). I truly value my family and the friends who have stuck it out with me over the decades. I know that what matters is how you treat others and how you make them feel. I have a more mature understanding of how I think the worlds works and what God wants out of me.

Lots of blessings. It hasn’t all been unicorns and glitter, but on the whole I have a great life and have learned to be resilient when things don’t go my way. Thanks to everyone on this journey with me. Here’s to the next 57…or whatever that number may be.

Aging and the Immune System

Diane Francis: Treating aging like a disease is the next big thing ...

The most recent issue of AARP Bulletin had an article about aging and how it can affect the immune system. The entire issue highlighted COVID-19 and its impact on the older adult population and it is worth a read if you can get your hands on a copy. Here is the link to the article: https://www.aarp.org/health/conditions-treatments/info-2020/coronavirus-immunity-age-risk.html

The article points out that how our immune system can become more vulnerable as we age, and how important it is to do what we can to keep it strong.

How does growing older affect immunity?

  1. Our bodies produce less immune cells, particularly B and T cells that fight viruses.
  2. Our bodies develop chronic low-grade inflammation. Inflammation is when a part of the body becomes reddened, swollen, hot and/or painful, which is how our bodies fight germs and heal injuries. When inflammation is constant (inflammation should only be a temporary condition), the immune system becomes degraded.

The author, Mike Zimmerman, points out that there are things we can do to boost our immunity (see my blog post of May 18 on this topic).

  1. Keep moving–regular workouts increase immune function and lowers inflammation.
  2. Maintain a healthy weight; visceral fat releases inflammatory cytokines into the body; it becomes a spiral where more inflammation leads to weight gain which leads to inflammation… Avoid this by eating properly.
  3. Get to know your health situation better. Track your endurance and ability to do activities of daily living. Use digital devices to track heart rate, calories burned, etc. Note when there are significant changes and let your doctor know.
  4. Eat smart. There are certain vitamins and minerals that help our immune system (A, B, C, D, and E; folic acid, iron, selenium and zinc); look for foods that contain these nutrients
  5. Chill. Find ways to reduce stress like yoga, meditation, exercise, or a good movie, favorite song, etc. This is tough during sheltering at home, but it is essential to reduce stress.
  6. Vaccinate! Although as we age, vaccinations can be less effective, they still work and even if you do get sick it will most likely be a milder case.
  7. Meds. Some medications do lower the immune system’s ability to fight illness. Do your research; if a medication you are on does this, talk with your doctor and see if there are alternatives.

It is important to approach COVID-19 sensibly. Take all the appropriate precautions for sure, but be pro-active as well. Just because we are getting older doesn’t mean we are sitting ducks for this virus. Take action and stay healthy!

Boosting our Immunity

Here is a great post from FitAmbitiousBlond. Something to consider as we make our way through this pandemic. We are not just sitting ducks. Aside from wearing masks, staying home, washing hands, etc., there are things we can do to keep ourselves healthy that help to boost our immune system at the same time.

https://wordpress.com/read/blogs/145951722/posts/2136

Overcoming the Fear of Virtual Training

Eat garbage, then work it off

Does this picture make you think of what online or virtual training is like? It is true that there is no shortage of online workouts that a person can do featuring people who don’t look like they actually need the workout…and who happen to be shirtless or in a bare midriff. I get why folks would be a little put off by these workouts. The people on the screen look nothing like most of us. Is that why so many of us are afraid of online workouts?

Even so, we are at the point where “waiting out the pandemic” before going back to the gym may not really be an option. Ohio’s governor, Mike DeWine announced yesterday that gyms in the state can re-open after Memorial Day Weekend (not sure what’s magic about that date); on the same day, the Mandel JCC where I work as a Personal Trainer informed us that we would not go back to one-on-one in-person by-appointment-only training at the gym on May 18 as previously hoped. In fact, leadership reported that it could be June before we do this. And, even if a gym re-opens, what does that mean? I’ve blogged about this before; it won’t be the same old gym that you remember from early March.

It is time to get over the fear of virtual workouts. Many personal trainers are depending on their clients (current and future) to do just that since our livelihoods depend on it (no less that other local businesses depend on us). Some people just feel that virtual training is just not the same and they are correct; but post COVID-19, is anything the same?

Guess what? There are some advantages to virtual training.

First, no one else can see you (unless you are in a Zoom group workout) so if you mess up or poop out, no one will judge you…except maybe your dog. In my daily online workouts, I always give modifications so that folks will feel that they can build up to the more difficult exercises. No one knows if your doing the modifications or only 8 reps instead of 12. The downside, of course, is that if your form is off or you’re just plain doing it wrong, there is no way for the instructor to know…and you could end up injuring yourself, which leads me to my next point.

Second, if you are working with a trainer one-on-one, we are well-versed in how to do exercises correctly as well as giving you the kinds of workouts that will help you to reach your fitness goals whatever stage of life you are in. Does a 70-year-old retiree need to do a 30-minute butt blaster? Probably not, but would exercises aimed at balance, mobility and fighting the loss of muscle mass be helpful? You bet. A trainer can provide that–even online–tailored especially to your needs and wants.

Third, you have more equipment to work with than you realize. You may look around the house and think, “I don’t even have a jump rope!” Trainers are able to provide effective workouts even if you have ZERO equipment. I have done workouts using dish towels, canned goods, and rolls of toilet paper, and they were tough! Most can rely on our own body weight…although one of my clients who has no dumbbells used a bottle of Cabernet Savignon and a bottle of Merlot instead of weights–brilliant! I never thought that I’d say the line: “while doing those overhead triceps extensions you may want to have the cork facing up….”

Fourth, when you work one-on-one over a platform like Zoom or FB Live, the distractions are minimized. There aren’t other people in the gym to distract you. You don’t have to wait to get on a piece of equipment and lose your momentum. It is hombre a hombre and it can be a very effective way to get things done.

Fifth, the technology is not as difficult as you think. If you have a tablet or laptop, you most likely have a camera and speakers built right in. If you only have a desktop, there are a number of good and relatively inexpensive webcams for purchase online. The programs are designed to make it so that even a Technorsaurus Rex like myself can make it work. I have clients in their 80s who are using Zoom all the time. Your trainer can talk you through it…and then you can “visit” with friends and family too.

Of course, if you want, you can wait it out. By then, however, how much muscle tone will you have lost? How much will your stamina have decreased? How much weight will you have put on? How will all this affect your mood, your sleep, and your energy levels?

What are you afraid of?

Missing that Touch

Free Hugs

This morning I had the opportunity to watch a webcast sponsored by the Cleveland Clinic for clergy. There was a panel of religious leaders who reflected on what COVID-19 has meant for the work they do and for their congregants/members/parishioner. A big focus was on what it means for those of us who provide for the spiritual needs of others.

One of the pastors talked about how difficult it has been since he is a “hugger.” I will admit that I am somewhat of a hugger as well, but it’s not an essential part of my rabbinate. Another pastor talked about how challenging it is to comfort those in pain or in mourning when we cannot be physically close; how do you embrace those who are ill or in mourning when that very act is hazardous and possibly fatal?

The term we all use these days is “social distancing.” I’ve stopped using that term and instead starting using the term “physical distancing.” We human beings are social animals. We are not meant to live alone and on our own. Like bees and ants (and many other animals), we can only survive and thrive in community. That is part of why this experience is so difficult for us. It’s in our make-up as humans to connect with others. We may be physically distant, but we can never really be socially distant. Luckily, we have technology today that can help us to some degree.

As hard as this is for me as a rabbi, there is an added level being in the fitness industry as well. The experience of going to the gym is an inherently social one…especially if we work out with a personal trainer. Think about it: we could all work out at home–and there are many who do so successfully; it is a solitary experience. Most who join gyms or JCCs or YMCAs want the personal connection as well. The chatting, hanging out in the schvitz (sauna or steam room), and seeing friends are an integral part of the visit to the gym. As a personal trainer, I know that one of the most important aspects of my training is building a personal relationship with my clients; when I was client, it wasn’t just about the exercises, but also about my trust in my trainer and my sense that s/he really cared about me. COVID-19 has put a huge kink in that dynamic. I can see my clients via Zoom or Facebook Live, but the personal “touch” is missing. The real or proverbial hug is now dangerous.

None of us knows how long this pandemic will be around, how much longer is will disrupt our lives. In the meantime, we need to continue to reach out to others so that they know that we are there…even if we are not physically present. We know that feeling, that sense that someone is with us even when they are far away (or perhaps even no longer living). How do we capture that? How do we recreate that? How do we recover that touch we miss? Then, how do we share it?

I don’t know the answers, but as a rabbi and a personal trainer, these tasks will be front and center until the day when once again we can truly hug each other again…providing that personal touch.

Staying Away from the Dead

The Afterlight

Jewish tradition has placed a great deal of emphasis on purity and impurity–not in terms of hygiene, but more in a spiritual sense. There are lots of laws concerning what causes such an impurity, and what to do to contain that uncleanness.

The weekly Torah portion, Emor, addresses the Kohanim, the ancient priests and the specific laws that they were bidden to follow. Among them was that they were not to come into contact with a deceased person since this is something that imparts ritual impurity. The only exceptions were for the death of a parent, brother, unmarried sister or child. All other Israelites could tend to the bodies of the deceased within the community without concern; the Priests, however, had to be ritually pure to serve in the Tabernacle and later the Temple.

It is noteworthy that many of these ideas are on our minds today in the midst of COVID-19. We are very aware of the people with whom we come into contact. We want to know with whom they have been in contact. The questions that are asked when you enter a doctor’s office or even a supermarket parallel those that might have been asked of a priest: Are you pure? Is it safe for you to be in our midst?

The parallel isn’t exact, but the Torah demonstrates that our ancestors dealt with the same questions and uncertainty as we do today. In 2020 it is COVID-19. In ancient times, it was death in general…as well as certain skin diseases. We often read these sections of the Torah thinking how quaint their understanding of medicine was back then. How quaint will we look in a hundred years when our descendants see how we dealt with our current crisis?

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Doors

That is the big question now in the United States. At the Federal Government’s urging (and to the dismay of many health experts) states are beginning to “open up” again. The last couple of months have been difficult, and everyone has faced different challenges. So we have this question: should I stay or should I go?

I have only gone out when there was something that I needed to accomplish that couldn’t be done online. Most everything that my family needs is delivered to the house. I teach an online workout every morning. My clients train with me via Zoom. I avoid contact with others when I am out–including appropriate physical distancing and always wearing a mask. As things open up, we all have to figure out what is the right thing to do.

Earlier this week, the local JCC where I work as a personal trainer announced that we will begin to open the facility in phases. Starting in about 10 days, the Fitness Center will be open by appointment only for personal training and Pilates only. It is not totally clear what any of this will look like, but we may train one-on-one with our clients in a separate designated area, wearing masks, no locker rooms or shower, etc.; in other words, nothing will look as it did before. This will be a huge adjustment for me and my clients.

We have to remember that one of the goals of any Fitness Center is to foster the good health and fitness of its users. What good is it to build up muscles and endurance if you end up exposing yourself to a debilitating and sometimes deadly virus? In a way, we personal trainers are like doctors in that we have to ensure that “first, [we] do no harm.” We cannot work on all the areas of fitness that our clients come to us for unless we can guarantee to a reasonable degree that they will be safe doing so.

Should we go or should we stay? Everyone will answer this their own way. Certainly those who have more than two of the categories that put you at risk should consider staying. Otherwise, we may want to think about all the steps that we can take to get back into the swing of things while staying safe and healthy.

For me, I think it will be like getting into a pool. I usually don’t just dive in, but rather put one toe in at first to test out the waters. Once it looks safe I slowly guide myself in.

I’ll keep you posted on how things play out when I’m back at the gym.

The Holy Human Body

Generalized Human Body

In the Torah and elsewhere throughout Jewish Scripture, there is a tremendous emphasis on holiness. “Holy” is a word that is bandied about quite a bit, but what exactly is holiness?

In Hebrew, every verb and many nouns and adjectives have a three (and sometimes four) letter root. The word for “holy” is Kadosh and its root is Kuf-Dalet-Shin.

Kaddish, Kiddush, Kodesh – what's up with that? – Coffee Shop Rabbi

In early Hebrew, this three letter root signified something different or set apart. For example, there is discussion in the Torah about setting aside a gift for the Tabernacle; a person could vow that whatever was born from a cow would be given to God; that calf would be considered Hekdesh–using the same three-letter root. The calf was set aside for the Tabernacle only and could not be used for other things; this made it holy.

Think about this in other contexts. The place where Torah scrolls are kept is called an Aron Kodesh; Aron is a cabinet or closet, but this one is special because it contains the Torah; it is a separate or set aside piece of furniture. The Sabbath Day is often called Shabbat Kodesh, because it is different that every other day of the work; we do not work but rather use the time to pray, feast and rest. The Jewish wedding ceremony is called Kiddushin; the relationship between a married couple is different than the relationship between friends, parents and children, etc., because it contains a level of physical intimacy; this makes it holy and different. All of these examples–and there are many more–make use of the same 3 letter root: Kadosh, Hekdesh, Kodesh, and Kiddushin.

This is the main theme of the Torah portions read this Shabbat; Achare Mot and Kedoshim deal with holiness in the ritual and ethical realm.

Is there holiness in the physical realm as well? I already alluded to the fact that there is holiness in physical intimacy. Judaism further teaches that our bodies are gifts to us from God; they are vessels of holiness. Without our bodies, we are not able to live in holiness. The weaker we are, the more ill we are, the less able we are to bring peace, justice, holiness and love into the world. Exercising, eating right and getting proper rest are not just nice things to do, from the Jewish standpoint they are also holy endeavors. We recognize that our bodies are not like other “objects” in God’s creation; they are vessels entrusted to us in order to fulfill our personal mission in the world.

The physical and the spiritual intersect; they are, in fact, inseparable. Our souls and our internal holiness cannot exist in the air; they need a vessel to hold them. Taking care of that vessel is as holy an endeavor as attending religious services, giving to charitable causes, and helping our neighbors. When we take care of ourselves we bring holiness into the world.

Wishing all of you a healthy, happy and holy Shabbat!

Staying on Track

3,000+ Free Railroad Tracks & Train Images - Pixabay

It has been about a month since I wrote about how many of us are “growing” during this time of sheltering in place–and I meant it in terms of our waistlines. I shared how I was having my own struggles with a house full of food and not as much activity as my body is used to.

My first attempt at trying to get on track was to try intermittent fasting. This was, as you may recall, not a success; it just didn’t fit with my schedule. I am also not convinced it is a long-term solution or a pattern of behavior that is sustainable in the long run.

My second attempt was to count those calories. I have had the assistance of My Fitness Pal (I do not get a kickback for mentioning them), and it is making a difference. I have used this app in the past and found that it makes me more aware of the food I am eating and when I am eating it. This was a theme of my Torah commentary a couple of weeks ago as well. Following MFP has not been as difficult as I expected. It has helped me to plan better and kept me cognizant of how often I have the craving to snack. (I am of Hungarian Jewish descent and I cannot say “no” to pastry; I come by it honestly!) Another plus is that I feel like I could do this for a while; the cravings are dissipating and I am drinking less alcohol as well.

My real downfall has been Shabbat when according to Jewish tradition we are to eat three fine meals. In many Jewish homes, the typical Friday Night dinner does not look that different than a Thanksgiving Dinner. The past couple of weeks, I have approached Shabbat with the same kind of planning that goes into the holidays. I was careful about what I ate; portion-control, avoiding seconds, limiting myself to two small glasses of wine, and not going crazy at dessert actually paid off. I have watched the weight slowly come off. I am a still a way off from pre-quarantine levels, but I am pleased with my progress.

The JCC where I work just purchased an InBody Assessment tool; it tracks body composition and is way better than the old equipment we’ve been using. All of the personal trainers had to take a 2-hour online course and pass a test before we could administer an assessment…and wait for the gym to re-open. What the training reiterated was that weight is only one number and it is a complicated one. I know that I’ve been working out more since COVID-19 and it is likely that I am building muscle which is denser than fat. I look forward to checking the other factors like body fat percentage to get a truer picture of how well I am taking care of myself.

In the meantime, I am making progress and this encourages me to stay on track. I am taking control of my fitness…and it feels great!

What gets you on track…and what keeps you there?

An Ancient Text is Still Compelling

The holy scripture

One of the beauties of the Torah is its enduring wisdom. Although the document has remained unchanged for millennia, it continues to teach us and guide us in 2020. One could make the argument that there is so much in the world today that the Torah could not have anticipated, and therefore it is of little value in our contemporary world. The authors(s) of the Torah could not have conceived of cellphones, air travel, organ transplantation or perhaps even loving, committed, intimate same-gender relationships. In a way, this is really a side issue. The Torah still has overarching themes that apply in a world that looks so different than the biblical period: building a relationship with God, looking out for others, pursuing justice, seeking peace, and bringing holiness into our lives are just a few of these themes.

There are some parts of the Torah that are clearly antiquated and we may wonder what use they have: the ownership of slaves, animal sacrifices, putting to death a child who will not listen to his parents, etc. When we dig a little deeper, we can try to identify the values that underlie these laws, and many times we find guidance and inspiration. Other times, we remain mystified…and that is okay.

The Torah portion for this week is a double-parasha; Tazria and Metzora are read together. These two portions have been viewed as being in the “antiquated” category. The understanding of medical and scientific phenomena were very limited and the laws regarding what today we might think of as mold, mildew, and a number of skin conditions seem out of date. The laws in the Torah portion represent the ancients’ best understanding of how to deal with conditions that they could not comprehend; they legislated as best they could in the face of mystery.

As antiquated as these laws seem, this year they take on a greater significance. We find ourselves close to the situation in which our ancestors found themselves. We are confronted with a disease that we do not fully understand. We do no know how to prevent it; there is no vaccine. We have no 100% effective way to treat it. We are not fully certain how it spreads. So–like the Priests in ancient times–we are doing the best we can to stop the spread and to care for those who are stricken. The similarities between Tzara’at (the skin condition often translated as leprosy) and COVID-19 are striking.

Can we gain any inspiration or guidance from the text of the Torah? The laws tell us that we are not to abandon those who are ill. The Priests had to check on them regularly to see their progress and determine when it was safe for them to return to the community. It was a process that could be quite lengthy. Sound familiar? The Torah tells us that in the face of that which we do not understand we must be cautious. We must always seek to preserve life. Through it all, we must also preserve the dignity of those who are ill. And let’s not overlook that those who were “caregivers” were given a place of esteem in society.

The most repeated commandment in the Torah is to be kind to the stranger because we know what it is like to be strangers ourselves. A text that is thousands of years old speaks to us in modern times–and especially in the age of COVID-19. Its message of love and concern for others is enduring; let the Torah inspire to be better than our fear and selfishness. Let us work to bring holiness and wholeness into God’s Creation.