Six years ago, while still working at JUF News, I wrote an article about a survey and grant focusing on the health of Chicago’s Orthodox community. Unlike the dozens of other articles I had written on JUF grants, this one I still remember, not only because of the shocking survey results, but also because I credit that grant–and the subsequent Jewish Day School Wellness Initiative as a pivotal turning point in the physical health of my community.
That study by Mt. Sinai Hospital found that 56% of Jewish adults and 54% of children in West Rogers Park and Peterson Park were overweight or obese. The percentage of children was significantly higher than national averages. On top of that, many of the adults surveyed did not even know they were overweight, making lowering the percentage of obesity in our community particularly challenging. I remember strong words from HaRav Gedalia Dov Schwartz at the time (who I’m paraphrasing from memory): We’re literally killing ourselves.
At that time I could count the other runners I would see outside on one hand. I knew a few others who ran or walked on treadmills. Any talk about exercise usually involved a debate about whether it was tzenua to work out outside. Gym in many of the schools was a joke. And food? Chullent and kugel, with a mitzvah to take seconds.
Tonight, though, at my second Zumba class with Tziporah Gelman, I couldn’t help but be incredibly inspired. On the night before bedikas chometz, perhaps the busiest night of the year for Jewish women, over 75 women spent an hour sweating their brains out at a “Frumba” class at Cheder Lubavitch (of all places). There were even more women at the class on Monday night. Though these women span every age and circle, they’re unified by the common goal of having a blast while getting fit.
Add to Frumba, Zumba–taught by Erica Simon; Pilates classes; tai kwan do classes from Master Sunny Levi–a quadruple black belt and frum mother of 4; girls’ running programs at three of our day schools; Chai Lifeline programs for biking and marathoning; not to mention all the individuals working out on their own. Now when I run in the neighborhood or even in a race, I’m not ever surprised when I don’t recognize other runners in skirts. I’ve seen chasidishe rebbetzins jogging!
All this working out has changed the way we eat as well. Hundreds of people read this blog a week, seeking healthy recipes. Our schools work hard to focus on healthy snacks. Around the Shabbos table, I hear debates about gluten-free, whether soy is healthy or not and which oils are better than others. The discussion isn’t really the point, what’s astounding is how much people care about healthy eating.
I can’t help but be inspired, not only by the power of one grant, but also by the extent to which people are willing to change and work hard to improve their lives. Through this blog and the ACHDUS Running program, I feel privileged to have played a small part in helping improve the well being of this community. May we go from strength to strength!