Like all Americans, members of the Jewish community have been eating more and moving less, and we’ve suffered the consequences. It’s no secret that we have a food-centric culture, in which celebrations and holidays involve elaborate meals full of fat and calories. We like to cook and eat but we don’t like to exercise very much, and unfortunately, we’re unwittingly passing this onto our kids.
Physical activity levels in Jewish schools are lower than in secular schools because of the dual Jewish and secular curriculum, which doesn’t allow sufficient time for gym and health classes. Many Orthodox schools have even fewer physical activities because of limitations on coed exercise. Although our lack of exercise and poor diet stems in large part from cultural issues, we’ve left the health and wellness initiatives up to non-Jewish organizations, which don’t always understand our culture and the reasons that our health is declining.
The good news is that many non-Jewish organizations can serve as great models for how to create these types of programs in our community. For example, The Alliance for a Healthier Generation aims to reduce childhood obesity through programs in which schools, families, and doctors empower kids to make healthier choices. Another example is Action for Healthy Kids, which galvanizes children, schools, and communities to promote education about nutrition and fitness.
While these organizations serve the general population, the Jewish community as a whole lacks similar resources. The troubling fact is that, after hours of Google research, I was able to find just five Jewish organizations working to improve our community’s health through fitness and nutrition. To continue our altruistic tradition of helping each other, we need to create more Jewish wellness initiatives while doing everything we can to support those that already exist.
The Jewish Community Health Initiative (JCHI) is one of the best examples of Jewish organizations that work to improve health by emphasizing fitness and nutrition. The organization, led by Dr. Mendel Singer, a professor of public health at the Case Western Reserve Medical School, is cultivating partnerships with Jewish communities across the country to create a Jewish health movement. Dr. Singer’s goal is to focus on disease prevention through healthy living, rather than disease treatment, which many other Jewish organizations are already working on.
One of the JCHI’s latest partners is Camp Zeke, a new Jewish overnight camp that focuses on fitness, organic food, and healthy cooking. Campers can throw on an apron and cook with a professional chef, participate in energizing fitness activities, like strength training and dance, and in the process, join a community of like-minded peers. Camp Zeke is also establishing a series of year-round cooking and fitness seminars for a mini version of the summer experience.
Some other examples of Jewish organizations that do work in the area are the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center and Hazon (two organizations that just merged), and the Jewish Family and Children’s Service. Isabella Freedman has historically hosted programs such as Torah Yoga, adult weight loss camps, and food conferences. Hazon aims to create “healthier, more sustainable communities” by spearheading the Jewish food movement. The organization raises awareness through physical activities like cross-country bike rides. For its part, the Jewish Family and Children’s Service runs a nutrition program that has expanded across the country since its founding.
While these organizations are doing admirable work, we as a community need to strengthen them, talk about them, help them grow, and hopefully inspire more social entrepreneurs to so similar work. As we proceed, let’s remember that, throughout history, some of the greatest Jewish minds have stressed that physical health is a core component of our Jewish identity. Let’s act on this message and make the Jewish teaching of shmirat ha’guf – or taking care of the body – part of our daily conversations with community members.
Aliza Wadler Solomon is a graduate student of Public Health who is working closely with Camp Zeke, a new Jewish overnight camp that immerses kids in pure foods, energizing fitness activities, and culinary arts.