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.

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.

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!

Fat Memes during COVID-19

Weight Gurus black bathroom scale on wood floor

I have noticed a lot of postings on Social Media joking about how overweight we will all be once we are through with our self-isolation/quarantining. To put it bluntly: not funny.

First, there are many people who struggle with their weight and their overall fitness all the time–not just during this unique period. My guess is that these are NOT the people posting these jokes and pictures; are they posted by “skinny” folks who feel safe because they know they are not really talking about themselves?

Second, how is it that in polite company and in social media it is not okay to joke about someone’s ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious beliefs (or lack thereof), and yet fat-shaming is still acceptable? As a personal trainer, I know that many people at the gym are keenly aware of this inconsistency. It is part of the reason why many with weight issues avoid the gym: fear of being judged or, even worse, ridiculed.

Third, there also folks out there who have genuine eating disorders. Eating properly and healthy are a daily battle for them. Can we even imagine what being stuck in a house full of food is like? It is a matter of mental and physical health…but, hey, if it gets a chuckle let’s post it on Facebook or Twitter!

Joking about someone’s physical condition should never be acceptable. During this difficult COVID-19 period, we should be especially sensitive to those who struggle with their health and their weight. It is hard enough for the rest of us to try to maintain proper diets while we are stuck at home or having to order take-out…let’s not make light of what for many is a very serious issue.

There is plenty of other funny stuff out there to joke about. I hear that cats are funny…

Use It or Lose It

Sunday, lazy Sunday

This past week I have begun to do a lot more personal training via Zoom. In addition to my daily 10 am class on Facebook, I have book quite a few of my clients for 30 minute sessions.

A few of them have managed to keep their workout schedules, albeit somewhat modified for the situation. Most of the others, however, have allowed themselves to become sedentary. It is true that they are cleaning around the house, etc., but not a lot of activity that challenges the muscles and raises the heart rate.

A lot of research has been conducted about “backsliding.” Most of it shows that within 30 days one can already begin to see the effects of not working out: loss of muscle tone, decreased stamina, loss of mobility and flexibility. I always thought that number was a bit of an exaggeration. One month! Really? That’s all it takes?

Well, guess what? Some of my clients are really struggling as we get back into a healthy routine. I feel like I’ve had to step back quite a bit from where we were before the quarantine. I am grateful that I am able to help, and this is a warning to all of us.

The situation is difficult. This is all the more reason to take care of ourselves. The inclination is to sit on the couch and snack but that is dangerous. When this is all over (soon I hope), what shape will we be in physically? Let’s also not forget that getting plenty of sleep, exercising and eating right boosts our immune system. By “letting ourselves go,” we put ourselves at greater risk of contracting viruses, etc.

It’s not too late. This could go on for a while. Get up, get online. Google a workout. Find equipment at home that you can use–canned goods make good hand weights, and you can also make use of towels, pillows, etc. Get moving! You’ll be glad you did.

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: https://www.jta.org/quick-reads/synagogue-in-huntsville-alabama-vandalized-on-first-night-of-passover-with-neo-nazi-graffiti

How is Quarantining Helping You Grow?

Weight Gurus black bathroom scale on wood floor

OK. So this was not really the kind of growth I was looking forward to. I will admit that I have learned a lot about myself and those around me during the current COVID-19 unpleasantness. It has come at some cost to my fitness for sure as my waistline is growing too.

A few posts back I mentioned that I was going to give Intermittent Fasting a shot…and I did. I tried it for one week, but found it untenable. Most folks doing this choose to eat only from 11 am – 7 pm, while the rest of the time they only drink liquids. I teach a daily workout online (search Facebook for Kosher-Fitness) at 10 am and I’ve got to fuel up before that. We also usually sit down to dinner between 6:30 and 7:00 pm which doesn’t fit the schedule either. The real proof was (you should pardon the expression) in the pudding; I was continuing to put on weight.

This is totally to be expected since most of us are way less active now than we usually are. Typically at work as a personal trainer I am doing a lot of walking around with clients, demonstrating exercises, and sometimes even doing certain things right along with the person. Ironically, the workouts that I teach online are more strenuous than my typical exercise regimen. Even so, I’m still at a deficit when it comes to burning calories.

I’ve decided to follow the advice I give to my own clients. I am counting calories now. It’s not as bad as it seems; I’m using the My Fitness Pal app–which I have used on and off over the last year. I find that it benefits me in two ways at least. First, it makes me aware of just how many calories I am consuming–which is usually more than my ballpark guesstimates. Second, I’m too lazy to keep going to the app, so I simply decide not to have that little snack so that I don’t have to go through the trouble. It’s like keeping kosher–observing the Jewish dietary laws; I make myself much more aware of what I am consuming.

I will keep you posted on my progress. How are you all doing? Are you finding that you are growing in unexpected ways too? No one knows how long this will go on, but if we put on a pound a week for a couple of months, it will be a challenge to get back to where we were.

Finally, remember that weight is only one aspect of health and fitness. Don’t forget about maintaining strength and cardio-vascular health. Remember to be kind to yourself and care for your emotional self too. Staying healthy is a multi-level endeavor; don’t ignore any of those parts and pieces.