By Linna Ettinger
How many of us swelled with pride watching Aly Raisman win the Olympic Gold Medal for gymnastics, or shared the video of New England Patriots player Julian Edelman’s visit to Israel? Physical education has not garnered the respect that it should in the traditional Jewish world, to the point that if a famous professional athlete is Jewish, we Jews get all excited and say things like, “You know, she’s Jewish,” as though it is an anomaly. But the truth is that the value of guarding our body and soul, or shmirat ha guf v’hanefesh from Deuteronomy (4:9), has long been lauded in the Jewish tradition. Several thinkers have expounded upon this verse, including Moses Maimonides, twelfth century physician and Jewish philosopher, who learned much about medicine from the writings of second century Greek physician Galen of Pergamon. Maimonides wrote a chapter in his Mishneh Torah about health, explaining the importance of maintaining good hygiene and physical health of the body in order to ensure the ability of a person to worship God. For Maimonides, perfection of the body was intertwined with the perfection of the soul; and perfection of the body and soul is integral to the perfection of the community.
In the spirit of Maimonides, physical education is an integral component of life at Temple Emunah in Lexington Massachusetts, going much beyond biblical text and lip service. In addition to striving to achieve physical fitness to better enable ourselves to worship God, our physical education programs provide a variety of entry points into our community. Temple Emunah is blessed with Rabbi David Lerner, who has taken physical fitness to a new level by running in and completing the Boston Marathon – a crowning achievement for anybody, and a great example for members of the Jewish community. Also an avid cycler, Rabbi Lerner is an inspiration for Emunah members, modeling the importance of physical fitness as it relates to our ability to be mindful, fully present, intellectual Jews.
Invigorating fitness programs run continuously throughout the year including regular opportunities such as:
- “Running with the Rabbi” – a fun early morning Shabbat run around the neighborhood prior to Shabbat morning services.
- “MMRWTR “- Monday Morning (bike) Ride With The Rabbi. On other weekday mornings, riders can participate on the “Morning Ride,” weekday morning bicycle rides with a congregant who is a bicycling enthusiast. Some bicyclists participate on the Hazon/Arava Institute Israel Ride in the fall.
- “Emunah Walks” – A fitness walk three mornings a week for about an hour, outdoors weather permitting, or indoors in the nearby mall during inclement weather.
- “Vinyasa Yoga” – with a certified instructor, meeting weekly. On some Shabbat mornings, yoga enthusiasts can participate in “Yoga with a Jewish Twist” as an alternative way to prepare for the Torah Service.
- “Israeli Dance” – with an instructor, meeting weekly.
- “Zumba” – with a certified instructor, meeting weekly.
- “Men’s Shul Softball League” – a seasonal time for men to play ball against other shuls in the neighboring towns.
- Basketball – on Shabbat afternoons at Rabbi Lerner’s house; as part of the annual Steven Teitelbaum Memorial Basketball Tournament; and Midnight Basketball for Teens as part of Emunah’s Teen-Track at our Tikkun Leyl Shavuot.
To augment physical education, Temple Emunah recently launched Emunat HaLev, a meditation institute, providing opportunities for guided meditation to devote attention to our souls throughout the year. Emunat haLev founders Barbara Neustadt and Rabbi Lerner have attended retreats offered by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, where they have learned how to lead meditation. Barbara, Rabbi Lerner, Moreh Ruhaniyut (Spirituality Teacher) Beni Summers and lay leaders who are also experienced meditators take turns leading meditation as well. Meditation themes including the joys, difficulties and insights of meditation practice and ways to bring mindfulness alive in relationships, work and daily life. Emunat HaLev programs are:
- “Minhah Meditation Group” – a guided meditation meeting monthly on a weekday evening prior to Minhah services.
- “Mindful Meditation” – weekly guided meditation on a weekday morning after morning minyan (but not immediately following morning minyan).
- “Shabbat Morning Meditation” – held a few times a year in parallel to Shabbat morning services prior to the Torah service, in a separate room, as an alternative way to prepare for the communal Torah Service.
- “Shabbat Afternoon Meditation” – provided a few times a year in conjunction with Minhah/Ma’ariv services, usually in the wintertime.
Temple Emunah’s combined offerings of physical education programs and meditation programs are an example of how synagogues can exercise the value of shmirat ha guf v’hanefesh while maintaining relevance and happily meeting the physical and spiritual needs of today’s congregants. Temple Emunah is an exercising community, and the result is a joyful, more cohesive and healthy community. Temple Emunah’s model of exercising community is worth emulation by other religious communities as well.
For tips on how to create an exercising community, contact Linna Ettinger, co-chair of Temple Emunah’s Adult Education Committee. She and her co-chair, Terri Swartz Russell, can be reached at email@example.com. More information on Temple Emunah, a Conservative synagogue in Lexington, Massachusetts, can be found at www.templeemunah.org. Linna is also Assistant Director of the Early Childhood Institute of the Shoolman Graduate School of Jewish Education at Hebrew College, and a group leader for the Community Leadership Program of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.