Shema Yisrael, Listen Jews…and White People

Ear

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.

To Schvitz or Not To Schvitz?

Finnish sauna II

Last week I had the opportunity to do something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time: visit the Cleveland Schvitz. For the Yiddish-impaired, Schvitz translates as “sweat,” but informally refers to a sauna or steam room. The Schvitz in Cleveland is an entire complex, a building all to itself. There is a large sauna room, changing/locker room with beds, shower room and cold pool; there is also a wonderful restaurant serving steaks, salmon, tuna, etc.

I went with my brothers-in-law and a couple of friends and the experience was everything that I thought it would. I had the feeling that I was stepping back in time to a cultural institution from the “old country.” The food was as good as I had heard–perhaps even more than I expected.

At the JCC, whenever I work out I spend 5 minutes in the steam room after my workout. This is different, though, since the Schvitz is more of a dry room than a wet one. Last year I went to a Korean Spa near Baltimore and it was a similar experience, right down to the excellent food; the only difference was the the place in Maryland was co-ed. The Schvitz is all testosterone.

I enjoy a quick Schvitz; it relaxes me and helps to clear my head. I use those few minutes to do some PT exercises to ward off my old tennis elbow. I wondered, however, whether there really is any benefit to using a sauna/steam room. What I’ve heard is that it is a good way to relax and it helps to sweat out the toxins in our bodies.

I did a little research on the internet (so it must be true) and found that there seems to be some real benefits to the Schvitz. The heat causes an elevated heart rate which can have the same positive effects as cardiovascular activity, but at a much lower level. Asthma sufferers may find some relief in a sauna as well as those with certain skin conditions. One article I found came from a reputable source: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/saunas-and-your-health. Its conclusion is that Schvitzing is not dangerous as long as we follow safe practices (do not combine with drug/alcohol use/observe reasonable time limits/hydrate). There are studies from Finland (where else?) that see to indicate that sauna use leads to longer life spans, but that will need more research. As for sweating out toxins, the article states that this is done more through our internal organs than through sweat. In the meantime, the article suggests that the benefit is really the sense of relaxation and wellness we may feel in the Schvitz.

To Schvitz or Not to Schvitz? I vote for Schvitz. We all need to take care of ourselves, and if the sauna/steam room helps us to relax, there seems to be no reason not to Schvitz.

One Year Later

time piece

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.

Why Kosher Fitness?

I am a Rabbi at a small congregation in the Cleveland, Ohio area. I am also an ACE Certified Personal Trainer.

The old joke says that a Jew believes the only thing his body is for is holding up his/her head. While our tradition does emphasize learning, we are ultimately judged for what we do and how we act.

If we are not able to do because we have not maintained our bodies (which are gifts from God), we cannot hope to fulfill what it is that God wants us to do on earth.

Follow this blog for tips on fitness, nutrition, wellness as well Kosher recipes and words of Torah. Bruchim Haba’im to Kosher Fitness!