One Year after the Pittsburgh Synagogue Massacre

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It has been just over a year on the Gregorian calendar since that terrible morning (October 27, 2018) in Pittsburgh when a gunman entered the Tree of Life Synagogue and murdered 11 innocent people at prayer services. On the Jewish calendar, the Yahrzeit (anniversary of a death) will not be for a few weeks.

I remember where I was when I heard the news. I was in synagogue here in Cleveland Heights when someone brought the terrible tidings. Details were sketchy but we feared it wasn’t good. Once the details emerged our fears were confirmed.

Within days, the Cleveland Jewish Community–along with other communities across the globe–were organizing memorial services. It felt especially close here in Cleveland since Pittsburgh is just a couple of hours away–closer by just a few miles than even Columbus. In this part of the Midwest there is a lot of mobility and nearby Jewish communities have a sense of kinship and overlapping of families. When I was in high school (having grown up in the Detroit area) I even attended a youth group conference that took place at this synagogue. This was not some far away shooting that affected others; it felt personal.

Since then, there is a feeling among many in the American Jewish community that something has dramatically and fundamentally changed. Our sense of belonging in this country has been challenged; an aspect of Jewish history that has been constant is that in nearly every place where Jews have been settled, we have either been expelled or persecuted or worst. I always thought that the USA was different: it is a democracy (still?!) and a nation made up of immigrants, those whose ancestors were brought here against their will, and a small but important minority of Native Americans. This is a place where anyone regardless of their background can become an American–and that is the way I have always felt.

With Pittsburgh something changed. I wonder whether there really is a future for Jews in America or whether what we see going on now is just the beginning of a long, dark path leading to yet another wandering. On the one hand it is unthinkable, but on the other hand Jewish history tells me otherwise.

I am astounded and angry that so little is done in this country to curb gun violence; when nothing was done after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, I realized this country had a problem in its soul. I am incredulous that many political leaders not only do not speak out against xenophobia but actually promote it. The depths to which levels of discourse in the USA have sunk make it hard to imagine much positive change in the short-term…and perhaps even in the longer-term.

I am sad. My heart aches for the Jewish community of Pittsburgh, for the victim’s families, and for our world. I cannot imagine the loss felt in the Steel City.

I am also afraid. I fear that saner voices will not be heard, that the deafening daily distractions will drown them out. I am afraid that things will get worse for the Jewish community in the US (and elsewhere) that has already had to spend millions to upgrade security. Does your house of worship have an armed security guard during prayer services? Mine does….now. How can we focus on feeding the hungry, pursuing justice, seeking peace, educating our youth, looking after the elderly, and caring for the sick when we must divert funds to simply keep ourselves safe and secure?

I will do what I can at the voting booth as well as by contacting my elected officials. I will demand that steps be taken to put this country back on track and make it the place where ALL Americans feel at home. Hopefully my worst fears will not be realized and next year at this time, we will see a new light shining on our great nation–a light of peace, knowledge, justice and love. We must do more than hope…we must act.

Mental Health and Exercise

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A lot has been discussed in the past several days since the mass shootings in Gilroy, El Paso and Dayton regarding mental health.

I am always bothered when mental health gets dragged gratuitously into discussions about gun violence. Mental illness occurs all over the world, and yet we still have a terrible record in the United States when it comes to gun violence and mass shootings. Additionally, the same elected officials who focus on the role of mental illness in our violent culture are often the same ones who have worked to provided greater access to mental health services. (End of that sermon).

As a personal trainer and a rabbi, I am by no means an expert in mental health. I do have some background in pastoral counseling, but I also know when the issue at hand is beyond my training and capabilities; then I refer to a professional. I have also dealt with mental health issues in my family–who hasn’t? A lifetime of living tells me that there are no easy answers, that you cannot just “get over it.” Depression, anxiety, panic disorders, etc., are real and they can be debilitating. The good news is that most mental illnesses are treatable, and success rates are highest with early intervention–which is why it is so important for all of us to work toward de-stigmatizing mental illness.

My own fitness journey really intensified about 11 years ago after my mother passed away. It was not that long after my divorce and after the end of an engagement that did not lead to marriage. I was not at my best. For several years, I had periods when I would go to the gym more regularly and others when I would not. After my mom passed away, a fellow mourner at synagogue services gave me some advice (I have mentioned this in a previous post): “take good care of yourself, this will be harder than you think.” I resolved from that moment to take good care of myself; I made visits to the gym a regular thing and was more careful with my diet. Those decisions–along with the support of family and friends–made a difference. Mourning for a parent was harder than I thought it would be, and taking care of myself was an important part of getting through it. I have stuck with it ever since and it has helped me through emotionally trying times.

Anecdotal evidence aside, there is a firm basis in science for the effect that exercise can have on our mental health. We know about the benefits to our cardio-vascular system, brain health, and musculo-skeletal system, but we do not often talk about what it does for our mental well-being. There are several good articles out there on this topic, and google will be your friend if you want more info.

A few points worth mentioning. Exercising releases chemicals in our bodies that create a greater sense of well-being–in particular, endorphins. The latest research also indicates that increased blood flow, nutrients, and oxygen to the brain as a result of exercise can aid in neurogenesis (the creation of new neurons) in the hippocampus–the part of the brain that helps regulate memory and emotions. For more on this topic, go to: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/what-works-and-why/201803/how-your-mental-health-reaps-the-benefits-exercise.

Additionally, depending on the exercise we are doing, we can develop greater capacity for mind calming (running, swimming, yoga). Small group classes can help build a supportive community. A personal trainer can create a plan to help us reach our physical fitness goals; many of my clients talk about the emotional well-being they feel as a result of the experience as well.

Exercise will not solve the mental health care crisis in our nation. Exercise will also not put an end to violence and mass murder in our society. Exercise is, however, one piece of the puzzle–not just to improving physical health, but mental health as well.

The world we live in is difficult–harder than we think. The advice I pass along: take good care of yourself. Exercise is one way to do that.