Personal Training in an Operating Room

The Operating Room

That’s kind of what it feels like.

The Mandel JCC “opened up” on Monday. I put that in quotes because it is just Phase I and it is not really open. The only thing that is available right now is personal training by-appointment-only during limited hours (less than half the pre-COVID-19 schedule).

The first time I came in on Monday morning it was more like walking into a morgue than an OR. The place was eerily quiet: no one at the front desk, no folks milling about, the Subway sandwich shop is closed. Just one security guard. The hallways are all but empty; some maintenance employees are here and there.

Downstairs in the fitness center, the bright lights (like in an OR) are on and the room is flooded with the whiteness of the sunshine and the floor tiles. The machines are distanced from each other adding an airiness that did not exist before. All the trainers and other employees are in masks and gloves. Only the clients are unmasked (not all of them). It really felt more medical than fitness-oriented.

Add to this that we have to carry a bottle of spray disinfectant with us at all times as well as a towel to wipe down equipment (there are also disinfectant wipes in various locations), and it is purely antiseptic. Only the music seems louder than usual.

It takes some getting used to, but now on my third day it is not really that big of an adjustment. It’s actually a pleasure to not have to wait for a machine to become available. I am not grossed out by sweaty folks who get up and don’t wipe down their equipment. There are no lunkheads crowded in front of the mirrors checking themselves out.

I could get used to this, but I recognize this is not a viable business model. More people will need to use the facility and pay their membership dues for this to make economic sense. As a first step, though, I am impressed with my gym for all the steps that have been taken. I feel a lot of things when I’m at work, but fear isn’t one of them.

I know other gyms just threw their doors open. I cannot imagine the public health hazard that creates. I am glad we are taking it one step at a time. Let’s hope we do more good than harm in the long run.

Shema Yisrael, Listen Jews…and White People


Like most of you, I am heart-broken. Yesterday, after the conclusion of the Festival of Shavuot (during which I do not typically use electronics), I heard about the destruction occurring in many cities across the US, including here in Cleveland.

I wish I knew what to say or do in this moment. I feel despair. Racism has been an issue here for over 400 years–since the first European explorers arrived and met the people who had been living here for generations and generations. The legacy of the enslavement of Africans is a stain on the history of this nation; there has never been a true reckoning among Americans that the greatness of the country was in large part built (literally) on the backs of those of African descent. Even though slavery ended with the Civil War, even though there is a Civil Rights Act, even though the 44th President was a black man, the inequalities, cruelties and injustice persist. We don’t learn. (Just as we don’t learn after dozens and dozens of mass shootings). We are outraged for a few days, and then everything goes back to “normal” for those of who have the privilege to not be personally affected.

The African-American community and others of goodwill are fed up with the injustice. I get it, but as a white man I cannot fully comprehend it. I’m trying to educate myself, to learn more, to LISTEN.

Many in this country–but particularly people of color–are mourning, not just George Floyd, but mourning the thousands of others whose lives were taken, whose dreams were crushed, whose opportunities were denied, whose justice was withheld. There is sadness not only for what has happened, but also for what could have been, and for what should be and is not yet.

Jewish tradition teaches us a lot about how to approach loss. Two teachings in particular are worth remembering. Sefer Hasidim, is a collection of the teachings of great rabbis assembled by Judah ben Samuel of Regensburg (12-13 centuries). One of the teachings is that we are to say nothing to a mourner while the deceased still lies before him/her. In other words, in those moments of extreme pain and grief (before even the burial has taken place), we are bidden to keep our mouths shut. Anything we say, will not be heard…or it may be heard and do more harm than good. Don’t try to pacify someone in a moment when their emotions are valid, when they need to be experienced and expressed. We are not there to speak…but to LISTEN and simply BE THERE. There is another well-known law that when one goes to a Shiva House (a house of mourning) one should not greet the mourners, but rather wait for the mourners to greet them (Shulchan Aruch). Again, this experience is not about what we have to say, but about what those in mourning have to say. It is up to us to LISTEN and BE THERE.

There are times when we simply don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to say to my African-American friends and acquaintances. “I’m sorry” doesn’t seem right. “How are you doing?” seems ridiculous. So I will take my lead from Jewish tradition. I will be present however I can; I will BE THERE in meaningful ways. And, instead of pretending I have the answers or that something I might say will make things better, I will LISTEN. I will listen to the needs of those who are suffering…and then respond–not with words as much as with action.

As a rabbi, there are few times when I am at a loss for words. When I am, I do my best to just listen and be there. Then I will know what best to do next…and with God’s help, actually make it happen.

I’m listening now.

Use That Sunscreen

Today was my 5th Mohs procedure..and it was a doozy.

For those unfamiliar with Mohs, it is a surgery that removes layer by layer of skin in order to excise cancerous cells. First, you or your doctor may see something that looks unusual on the skin; s/he may decide it’s nothing or that it looks suspicious in which case it is removed and sent to a lab. The pathology can come back as benign (nothing dangerous) or cancerous. In my case, it was a basal cell carcinoma–the fifth one I’ve had. In order to make sure all the cancer has been completely removed, the dermatologist or a specialist will perform the Mohs procedure. One layer of skin is removed and if the edges are cancer-free, you’re done; you get a band-aid and you go home (well, it’s a little more complicated). Every other time I’ve had a Mohs, that is the way it went down. If, however, there are still cancerous cells on the periphery, the doctor will do another layer. This keeps going until the peripheries are clear. The average number of times a patient will have a layer removed is 1.8. Today, I set a personal record with 4! I was at the surgeon’s office for nearly 4 hours…and if you think the bandage looks bad, you should have seen what the wound looked like before it was closed!

The doctor and I had a conversation about why I was on my 5th procedure (my first being about 20 years ago and the last 2 years ago). I am fair- skinned and as a kid no one really paid attention to UV rays or sunscreen. It was a regular occurrence for me to get a sunburn; sometimes quite painful. Who knew that 40 years later this would be the result? Now I have to be especially careful.

What I did not know is that all that sun damage has actually altered the DNA of my affected skin cells. Some of them are OK and will never morph into anything else. Others, however, may be at the edge (99% and ready to go) of going cancerous. What will determine the next steps? It is entirely in my hands–literally. Sunscreen.

From here on out, I will be wearing it on my face (a special one designed for that purpose) every day. I will also wear an over-the-counter on my other exposed body parts. Windshields and car windows, as well as clouds, do not filter out the damaging radiation that can trigger these cells. Only a good sunscreen with a high enough SPF will work.

I am getting to be pretty high maintenance! Actually, this is a relatively easy step to add to my routine each morning…and later in the day if I am outside quite a bit.

I have been fortunate. So far, all have been basal cell carcinomas–easily treated. Next time, who knows?

My warning to you, my readers: the future of your skin is in your hands too. Sunscreen every day!

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!

Re-Opening the Gyms

Sometimes Open Needs a Push

A couple of days ago the Personal Fitness staff had its regular weekly meeting via Zoom. It is really great to see my colleagues–especially since they are a great crew–even if it is via Zoom.

Not surprisingly, part of the agenda was about the “push to open” gyms. In Ohio, it appears that there will be a gradual re-opening of certain businesses starting in May including gyms. This, of course, does not mean that the state will force them to re-open (as they were forced to close), but it does mean that there is an effort afoot to try to get life to the new normal.

We are pretty excited about the prospect of being able to go back to work and train our clients. There are, however, a lot of details that need to be worked out first. I, for one, am very worried about the risks of face-to-face (in the flesh) training. In all honesty, I am worried about the COVID-19 virus simply because there is no vaccine and the treatments are limited. I am not a spring chicken and although I am in good (great?) shape for my age, many people younger than me have succumbed to the virus.

It does appear that when gyms get back to business (at least the responsible ones), the doors won’t just be thrown wide open with anyone coming in whenever, wherever and however they wish. My guess–and this is not based on anything told to me by the higher-ups–is that our facility and others will open up gradually. Perhaps at first it will just be available for those working with personal trainers. Maybe last names A-L will come on even numbered days and M-Z on odd numbered days. Will locker rooms be available for use? Showers? Steam rooms, saunas and whirlpools? Probably not at first. What about cardio equipment that is usually packed pretty closely together? How will equipment be cleaned–especially dumbbells and mats? Gyms are among the touchiest places out there…not to mention that people are sweating, breathing hard and otherwise sharing bodily fluids all the time.

How will this all work? I don’t have the answers, but many gyms are looking to the East…the Far East. There are places in Asia where gyms have re-opened and here in the US we are watching closely to see how they do it and whether it is safe. Until we do have answers to the questions above and many others, it is my hope that the doors aren’t just flung open for business.

My gym has been super-responsible and super-responsive during this whole crisis. Let’s hope that ethos continues and that other gyms follow suit.

I cannot wait to get back to the gym…but until these issues are sorted out, that’s just what we’ll have to do. After all, it’s all about being healthy!

Hate Won’t Social Distance or Take a Holiday

My second-to-last year in Rabbinical School at JTS I was afforded the opportunity to serve as a student rabbi at a small congregation in Huntsville, Alabama. I think there were about 30-40 families at the time (1990-1991), most of whom had come from other places but had settled in Huntsville for work at NASA, Redstone Arsenal or other military-related employers. I would visit once/month and really enjoyed the experience with a super-friendly and welcoming group.

The synagogue came into existence when one of the families’ sons was approaching his Bar Mitzvah and the family wanted him to wear a tallit (prayer shawl). The old, traditional Reform Congregation did not allow this back then and so they broke off and formed the Conservative (this is the name of the denomination and has nothing to do with politics) Etz Chayim. They bought an old church building on a main road in southeastern Huntsville and on their own the members pitched in and made it work.

Etz Chayim was known at the Seminary for its “internship” where rabbinical students would serve as rabbis. It was a great chance to see what it would be like to be a pulpit rabbi in a caring and nurturing environment. I learned a lot during my year there, as did many of my friends who served 1-3 years in Huntsville.

It was with absolute sadness that I read of the vandalism that took place there on the first night of Passover (last Wednesday night, April 8). At a time when so many of us are thinking about the ways that we can help each other int his COVID-19 pandemic, there are still folks who have the time, energy, and supplies to vandalize a synagogue. The damage and the messages were painful enough but to have this occur on one of the most joyous and special days on the Jewish calendar is devastating. Of course, there is a long time tradition of attacking Jewish institutions and Jews themselves around Easter. What a great way to honor Jesus–persecute the community from which he came!

We are all distracted–and rightly so–by COVID-19, but let’s not forget that hatred doesn’t social distance and it doesn’t take a holiday. Here’s to hoping that the Huntsville community will come to the aid of Etz Chayim. That would be the true spirit of the ideals embodied in Christianity and Judaism.

Here is more info on what happened:

Extraordinary Times

2019/Paweł Jońca. Wall calendar.

We are in extraordinary times.  Judaism has something to say about that.

In Hebrew, there is a term:  Sha’at Had’chak, which roughly means at the time of an emergency.  I would argue–as have many of my colleagues across the observance spectrum–that we are in such times right now.  As you may know, in Jewish laws there are often various rabbinic opinions on observance.  Some positions are more stringent while others are more lenient.  During Sha’at Had’chak, it is permitted to follow a more lenient position if necessary.  Our tradition also records majority and minority opinions.  Typically, we follow the majority, but during these times there are those who suggest that it is permitted to follow the minority if necessary.
The overall guiding principle here is that we must do whatever we can to save lives; we are required (not just allowed) to violate all but three laws in Judaism in order to save lives; these are committing murder, committing a sexual offense, or denying the nature of God.  Otherwise, we must do what we can to save lives–and even to prevent illness when the chance of a fatality is low.

Most synagogues are following the principles of Judaism by adhering to the current CDC recommendations on social distancing.  This is why most congregations are not holding Shabbat services–or any services for that matter. We are all finding creative ways to carry on the life of the community, stay connected and sane using the technology available to us–some of which many will not use on Shabbat and holidays.  

Because of Sha’at Had’chak, most JCCs and other gyms are closed. They are also adhering to the CDC recommendations. That doesn’t mean that our fitness has to be delayed as well. There are many ways that we can stay in shape and maintain social distancing. I’ve been offering daily workouts for free through Facebook. The Mandel JCC here in Cleveland has virtual workouts several times a day that are free as well. Do some research. Find out how you can stay active and stay healthy. BTW, it is OK to get outside as long as you follow the rules there as well.

I pray that all of these measures will be temporary–although no one knows just yet what that means.  Once the Sha’at Had’chak ends, we will (God-willing) return to the regular activities in the community, perhaps with some adjustments that may become permanent.

Over the years, the Jewish people have faced massive changes.  We were thrown into slavery in Egypt and centuries later miraculously and spectacularly freed.  We settled a new land, were exiled, resettled, were exiled again and resettled again.  We have survived pogroms, plagues and mass murder.  Through it all, we remained true to ourselves, our tradition, our observances and to God.  

We will get through this with God’s help–and with each other’s help too!

Wishing you an early Shabbat Shalom!

Wo/man’s Best Friend

Today was Belle’s grooming day and she looks cute as can be. She got me wondering if there really is a health benefit to having a dog.

I have a lot of new clients who when I ask them about their physical activity tell me that they walk their dog. I usually think this doesn’t count because the pace isn’t high enough to raise one’s heart rate–especially if you’ve got a dog who loves to stop and sniff.

A little research yielded an article from the Harvard Medical School: It surprised me in a positive way.

The research indicates that dog owners have a much higher rate of achieving the 150 minutes of exercise recommended each week for adults: 87% for dog owners as opposed to 47% for non-dog owners. Obviously the people at Harvard never met Belle; I don’t know if my heart rate increases but I’ll bet my blood pressure increases as she drags me along doing everything except for the business at hand.

Owning a dog, of course, has other health benefits. They can be calming and provide a sense of lightness in our lives. Additionally, when we walk your dog or go to the dog park it increases our social interaction; we meet others and develop a sense of connectedness to our neighborhood.

As for cats….most of them I have met are not so walkable. Dogs, though, are indeed our best friends in a whole variety of ways.

Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

These words are a paraphrase of remarks made by Franklin Delano Roosevelt at his first presidential inauguration. Those were difficult times, recovering from the Great Depression and with a World War looming on the horizon. One could argue that back then there was a lot to actually fear.

Aside from how our anxieties affect us at work, school and in relationships, I regularly see how fear plays an outsized role in the realm of physical fitness.

I have worked with many clients with a variety of fears: fear of doing a certain exercise, fear of entering in a 5K, fear of looking foolish in the gym, fear of disappointing their trainer, etc. This can often be paralyzing. It can prevent us from engaging in the fitness activities that can help us to avoid the kinds of injuries and illnesses that we should legitimately fear.

I know that every time I have competed in a race (obstacle course, 1/2 marathon or triathlon), my overwhelming emotion beforehand is fear. I am afraid that I won’t finish the race, or that I might hurt myself, or that I will do so poorly that I will be a disappointment to myself or others. It is irrational since none of these have ever happened, but still it occurs.

As someone who has dealt with anxiety and even panic attacks, I know that this fear can prevent us from living a life of adventure, fulfillment and even love. There comes a time, though, when we have to take an informed and prepared leap of faith. I wouldn’t say that a person should conquer their fear of running a 5K by waking up one morning to do one; it requires preparation and training. The process of getting ready can help give us the confidence to overcome our anxieties.

We should be aware of the crippling role that fear can play in our lives. We must remind ourselves of how strong and courageous and deserving of good things we are. We must also work hard to reach our goals. Accept the fear. Stare it down…and then set it aside. The only thing we have to fear…is truly fear itself.

When Values Clash…on Iran

Image result for confusion

This past week has been a very troubling one.  The killing of Soleimani has heightened tensions with Iran.  The circumstances of a Ukrainian airliner’s crash in Tehran are murky.  Iran has targeted US bases in Iraq.  It is a real morass.

There is little doubt that Soleimani was not a nice guy.  There is little doubt that the Iranian regime is problematic at best.  And yet, we worry about the possibility of an armed conflict and what it might mean for those who will have to fight it…as well as those who may get caught in the crossfire–including those in Israel.

I am reminded of my study of Talmud.  The Talmud’s style is to ask every question imaginable (even those you could not imagine!).  It debates each opinion and even itself.  It digs deeper and deeper until we may forget the original question.  Rabbis disagree with each other on issues of law and conduct.  It is full of “on the one hand…and on the other hand.”

What is happening in the Middle East now (as always) is more complicated than it seems.  Nothing is truly clear cut.  It is difficult to know what the US Administration’s motives are.  We cannot know what the Iranian regime is thinking. We do not know all the intelligence that is out there.  We tend to follow whatever news source confirms what we already think from our own political or emotional perspective.

It is not easy to know what to think for certain…which is why the last week has felt like a dive into the Talmud for me.  And why so many of us are so worried.

One thing that is clear from our tradition is that there are times when values may clash with each other.  Sometimes there are two options that both seem right, or that both seem wrong.  How do we know what to choose?  How do we know what to believe?  Judaism teaches us that when values come into conflict we must try to follow the example set by the students of Aaron the Priest:  we must love peace and pursue it.

There are times when war is necessary.  First, however, we must seek to avoid it all costs.  If there is a way to save a life, it must be a priority.  May our tradition guide us and our leaders through the rough waters ahead.

Shabbat Shalom!