The Cycles in our World and in our Lives

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Today, not only are we about to begin Shabbat, but it is also Rosh Chodesh Av–the first day of the Hebrew month of Av. On the Hebrew calendar, every month begins when there is a new moon in the sky (even if it isn’t visible); it is a lunar calendar (as opposed to the Gregorian calendar which is solar). Even so, the Jewish calendar has a solar correction because the sun and the moon aren’t always lined up; there is a leap month every few years so that Passover always ends up in the spring, Rosh Hashanah in the fall, etc.

Judaism is especially attuned to the cycles of nature. We not only mark the cycles of the moon, but also the various seasons and harvests that accompany them. Prayer times are set by the pattern of sunrises and sunsets.

There is only one major observance that does not line up with any astronomical or natural cycles: Shabbat, the day of rest. It does not reflect anything going on in the cosmos; rather it is based on the biblical story of Creation. Even so, it is an important part (the most important!) of the cycles that make up Jewish life. The mega-cycle of the year on the Jewish calendar causes us to appreciate the world around us, to confront our responsibilities, and find our place in the world. Each holiday asks us to focus on what we need to do in the world. Passover focuses on freedom, Shavuot on responsibility, etc. All the cycles give us context for our lives so that we are not simply running on a treadmill from cradle to grave. The calendar encourages us to live in and appreciate the moment.

I cannot help but see a parallel to the world of physical fitness. Many of us have our regular cycle of upper body days, lower body days, group classes. We may even have a rotation of cardio equipment we use. For those who take this seriously, the cycles and patterns provide a sense of orderliness; they present a plan where it is possible to see progress–to look back on where we have been, where we are, and where we hope to go. These cycles can be quite effective.

In our society we often hear that we should not get “stuck in a rut.” We need to “break the cycle.” There is, however, a flip-side. We can use these patterns to help us organize our lives, set goals and even give our lives a sense of meaning.

On this new moon, I am reflecting on the bad things that happen in our world (that is a theme of the month of Av), and what I can do to prevent them. On this Shabbat (on which we conclude the Book of Numbers), I am thinking about closing one chapter and beginning another. I look to these cycles to help me find my place in the world and what I can do to reflect God’s presence in it.

One Year Later

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It’s hard to believe, but an entire year has passed since I moved to Cleveland. What a year it has been.

After ten years of being together, Michele and I are finally in the same city and under the same roof. This could, of course, have gone badly, but it has been wonderful from day one. We have learned a lot from and about each other. I imagine this is a never-ending process.

It has been a year of pleasant surprises…and others less pleasant. We have had our share of health-related issues in the last 12 months, but thank God we are doing fine now. We have traveled to some pretty exciting places: Columbus, Omaha, Chicago and Alaska! Lots of exciting plans for the future. Both of us have had unexpected opportunities and disappointments professionally. Through it all, we have been at each others’ sides.

My good friend, Rev. Tim Ahrens, is somewhat of an expert on the topic of transitions. He recommended a book that taught me a lot; one of the main points was that there cannot be any beginning without an ending. I think in previous parts of my life, there were new phases of my life that I tried to begin without really having ended the previous one. Although there were some issues (emotionally and otherwise) that I needed to work through, I think that my time in Columbus really did come to an end and wasn’t followed by a period of lingering. I jumped right into my new life: a new city (Cleveland has WAY surpassed my expectations), a new home (one that my wife and I have created together), and new employment.

I am thoroughly enjoying my work at Beth El – The Heights Synagogue; it is a small, independent minyan in Cleveland Heights–traditional and egalitarian. The shule has an interesting history and is not without its challenges, but it is very rare to find a place that embodies the kind of “pitch in and get things done” attitude that you find at BE-THS. This is a place that does not necessarily NEED a rabbi; there are plenty of members (some of whom are rabbis) who know how to give a drash, read Torah, etc. It is a shule that WANTS a rabbi and I am fortunate to have become connected with a really wonderful bunch of people. Did I mention we like to sing?

Work at the JCC has been most interesting. Although I passed my ACE certification to become a personal trainer in May of 2018, I did not start as a trainer at the JCC until mid-August and then did not train a member one-on-one until October. It is one thing to pass the exam and quite another to be able to translate the knowledge into action. I made my share of mistakes (more to come, I’m sure), but I have not hurt anyone. On the contrary, I am gratified to see the progress that many of my clients are making–especially some of my older adults who are seeing increased strength, agility and confidence. I have worked on a few projects (the Weight Loss Challenge–my team won!) and have several more in process now. I really like my colleagues who make it fun to come to work. I have been told by veteran trainers that it takes two years to really learn the “business” and to build a full roster of clients; I am pleased with my progress but I know there is a lot more hard work to come.

My take-aways from this last year:

  1. It is true that you cannot start something new without ending the old thing. I am glad to have had the circumstances in place to make the transition the right way.
  2. Transitions are difficult, and it helps to be kind to yourself. I am tough on myself and I am impatient. I am in the process of re-inventing myself after 26 years in the same role. Rome will not be built in a day, so I should not beat myself up when I have a setback.
  3. Humility is a virtue. I went from working as a congregational rabbi–a field in which I excelled and had a lot of experience–to being a personal trainer–a field in which I a newbie. It is good to be reminded that I have a lot to learn.
  4. Through the tough times of transition, there is nothing like the love of family to get you through it all. My kids have been so supportive–each in their own way. My siblings in Michigan have stayed close as always. My wife’s family has made me feel at home; it is a real treat to have family so close by and to be able to watch nieces and a nephew grow up in the neighborhood. And, of course, how very fortunate I am to have an amazing partner by my side. My wife is everything and more than I could have ever hoped for. She reminds me every day that good things come to those who wait, and some times nice guys finish first.

Today I celebrate a major milestone. Tomorrow…back to work and learning and loving. Thanks to all of you for joining me on my Kosher Fitness journey.

Is it Time to Re-Think Wearing a Yarmulke in Public?

Yarmulke

Last night, I had an experience that has never happened to me before, and I’m just not sure what to make of it.

Ever since I became observant in the mid-1980s, I have worn a Yarmulke/Kipah/Head-covering pretty much wherever I go. I have worn it out in public all over the US, in Canada, Costa Rica, Poland, Belarus, Cuba and Israel. I am a personal trainer and I wear my Kipah when I work out, when I train and when I teach a class (I have one I only use when I work out).

Pretty much the only time I don’t wear one is when I go to a non-kosher restaurant. This is based on an old concept: Marit Ayin, which is Hebrew for “the way something looks.” I do eat out in non-kosher restaurants where I can get dairy or vegetarian meals, but wearing a Kipah inside might lead someone to think the restaurant is kosher. Someone walking by might see a person with a Yarmulke and assume the restaurant is something it is not because of “the way something looks.”

Sometimes–especially when I’m on vacation–I may wear a baseball cap because I want to travel incognito. Sometimes, truthfully, I may not even cover my head, but that is rare.

So here is what happened last night. My wife and I went with some friends to an outdoor concert in Cleveland. I was not wearing a baseball cap–although I had meant to. I wore my Kipah and really did not think that much about it. Our seats were on a kind of aisle and toward the end of the concert an older man came by and said hello to me and told me how much he likes the Jews. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I am not unfamiliar with this kind of attention; people who say “Shalom”–it doesn’t bother me. Then he said this: “I made a lot of money with the Jews.” I was dumbfounded and I said something like, “I’m not even sure what to say about that.” I think he was sincere about his statement, like he thought he was speaking my language. He then made his way back to his seat.

What had been a very delightful evening got weird real fast. My wife mentioned that she actually thought she had met this guy before and back then he had asked if she was Jewish. This was in front of a hardware store. He made a similar statement to her. I am guessing he just doesn’t get how offensive a comment like that is, and I didn’t have the words to express that myself at the time.

The whole thing got me thinking about just how vulnerable it has begun to feel wearing a Kipah in public. On the east side of Cleveland there is a huge Jewish community–many of whose members are quite religious–so seeing a Kipah is not unusual. But many in the community stick to themselves; I, on the other hand, get out a little bit more. Today I did a prison visit in Marion, Ohio, and wore the my Kipah…but thought about it at the gas station as I was refilling my car in a small town.

Chants of “send them back,” may not be directed at me and the Jewish people (yet), but there is something going on in our country that I have never experienced before…and it is unsettling. Last night, I realized just how vulnerable I could be making myself. In this case, this was an old man who just didn’t know any better. To those who are real anti-Semites, though, I identify myself as an easy target.

For now, I will continue to wear my Kipah. I will be vigilant, though, and consider and re-consider as the days ahead unfold. It just saddens me. I have always felt at home in the US, but that home seems to have changed quite a lot…

The High Priest’s Grandson and Your Workout

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Thought for Shabbat

The end of this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, outlines the offerings to brought to the Tabernacle and later to the Temple.  It begins with the daily offerings, the weekly Shabbat offerings, and is then followed by the various festivals.

It is noteworthy that there was an offering presented by the priests every morning and every afternoon.  Sacrifices were seen by the ancients as a way to connect with God; during a sacrifice, the boundary between life and death was crossed and that mysterious and powerful act was thought to bring God’s presence nearer.  The Torah legislates that this does not happen only at special occasions or even just weekly, but rather every single day.

As a personal trainer, I can relate to this.  In ancient times, the goal of sacrifice was to draw near to God.  This could not be done in a haphazard way; it had to be done on a regular basis if there was any hope of achieving this aim.  The same is true for almost any goal we set for ourselves.  Whether in business, education or physical fitness, we need a regular program to help us get where we want to be.

I tell my clients that it is good that they see me on a (mostly) regular basis, but once or twice weekly may not be enough to lose the weight, tone up, build strength and endurance, etc.  The effort needs to be daily, lest we miss a day…and another…and another.  

Parashat Pinchas reminds us that this approach is valid not just in our earthly pursuits, but in our quest for the Divine as well.

Shabbat Shalom!

More News on Dementia and Lifestyle

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Well, it’s not really “news” since it is simply reconfirming what we already have seen in recent research.

There are studies recently shared at Alzheimer’s Association International Conference last week that show that there are five factors that have been shown to significantly reduce the risk of developing dementia later in life.

Both studies pointed to:

  1. A healthy diet
  2. At least 150 minutes a week of moderate to vigorous physical activity
  3. Light to moderate drinking (alcohol)
  4. No smoking
  5. Engaging in mentally stimulating activity

Engaging in all five decreased risk of Alzheimer’s by 60% compared to those who only had one healthy behavior. Those who added only one of the habits above saw their risk lowered by 22%!

It is becoming more and more clear every day that the decisions we make about our lifestyles at every point in our lives have implications downstream. There is no point at which we are “too late” to add healthy behaviors, and when we do add them the impact is noticeable.

For the full article in http://www.cnn.com, click here: https://www.cnn.com/2019/07/14/health/dementia-risk-lifestyle-study/index.html

Judaism teaches us that we are to pursue life. This means we cannot simply wait around and see what is in store for us health-wise. We must at every moment, make healthy decisions; not only will we sense the difference now, but in the years ahead as well.

Losing Weight: It’s All About the Math

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Those of you who follow my blog know that for the last few months I have been “struggling” to take off the weight that I put on during my mostly sedentary recovery from foot surgery.

Newsflash: going on a week-long Alaska cruise does NOT help the cause. Luckily, I only put on two pounds during the vacation, but it could have been worse.

When I returned home, I had the latest issue of ACE Fitness Magazine weighting for me. Much of the issue was devoted to discussions about nutrition and weight loss. There were articles about the latest trends in dieting (Keto, for example), the debate about whether eggs are good for us or not, as well as the latest research on the role of carbs.

The issues are usually not clear cut. Keto, for instance, is an effective method for dieting IF you can actually stay on the diet. The food choices are so limited that it is estimated that 50% of folks who try it do not last long enough to see results. It is also not recommended for older adults since the lack of protein in the Keto diet can contribute to loss of muscle mass–a serious issue as we age.

As was the case in many articles in ACE Fitness Magazine, the conclusion is that “more research is needed.”

So what do we know? A simple truth: weight loss is achieved when we burn more calories than we put into our bodies. It is a simple question of mathematics. If we eat 3000 calories worth of food but only burn off 2500 each day, we will put on weight (approximately one pound/week). On the flip-side if we burn 3000 calories per day and only eat 2500, we will lose about a pound a week. Simple math.

How does this effect me in my weight loss journey? I have started using the My Fitness Pal app again; I stopped on the vacation. This app (there are others out there) allows me to calculate how many calories I am ingesting, how many I am burning through exercise and activities of daily living, and suggests a proper calorie intake per day to achieve my goals. I have to be super-diligent to make sure I enter in the info in order to actually have this work. The app works on one simple principle as well: math. The numbers don’t and won’t lie.

We should all feel free to try different diet plans, but there are certain underlying truths:

  1. Eat less processed foods.
  2. Increase consumption of vegetables and fruits.
  3. Eat fats and carbs in moderation; try to switch out saturated fats for unsaturated fats.
  4. Burn more calories than you consume through eating.

I will keep you posted on my journey. The fact that yesterday was a Jewish fast day (17th of Tammuz) did help the cause, but I know there is a lot more work ahead to get me back to where I was pre-surgery.

Good thing I always did well in math class!

Back from Alaska renewed?

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I write this Thought for Shabbat from the airport in Houston on my way back from a wonderful vacation with Michele. 


We had the good fortune to travel to Alaska for a tour/cruise. It was a beautiful trip with great memories. 

We went primarily to see the majesty of nature before it is altered beyond recognition by global climate change; unfortunately, so much damage has already been done and we saw and experienced it first hand. It renewed in me the need to act in ways that are sustainable and even help to reverse the damage that has been done. 

Princess Cruises’ motto is “come back new.”  I certainly feel refreshed, but I think I’m still me. What is new, is an appreciation of the enormity and beauty of God’s Creation—and the obligation that each of us has to “till it and tend it.”


Shabbat Shalom!