Talking to God while working out Just let me get my sneakers on

Several mornings a week, I wake up at 5:30 a.m., pack up my gym bag and head into the city to the gym down the street from my office. During my 40-minute run on the treadmill, I have time to think about a lot of things: my plans for the weekend, my grocery list, whether I’m drinking enough water.

What I rarely think about is Judaism. And that’s a shame.

rachel freedenbergLast Friday I went to Foster City to cover a story on the Vibrant Brains program at the Peninsula JCC. Over the next few hours I learned all about brain fitness and how it can help strengthen the mind.

But one of the most interesting moments of the day came when I spoke with Deborah Pinsky, executive director of the PJCC. She told me about the JCC’s mantra of “healthy body, healthy mind, healthy spirit” and how the JCC is trying to incorporate the three.

“In the past, JCCs used to apologize for being a fitness club,” Deborah told me. “I want to celebrate it. It’s a high-priority Jewish value that you take care of your mind, body and soul.”

Gee! Where has Deborah been all my life?

When I was younger, you would have been more likely to see me on the moon than in the gym. Fitness meant sports; I was terrible at them, so I didn’t join any teams. I was actually proud to tell people, “I never work out. I’m just naturally thin!”

But early last year I realized that I was getting older, and if I wanted to be healthy later in life, I had to start exercising now. I had a gym membership that I hardly ever used, so I sucked it up and started a program called Couch to 5k, which helps non-runners slowly work up to a 5k run.

While I still don’t love working out, it’s become a big part of my routine. But unlike much of the rest of my life, I haven’t found a way to connect fitness to Judaism.

We’ve come a very long way from the image of the pale, skinny Torah scholar bent over his books, never running farther than to the synagogue or cheder. These days, Jews are excelling in almost every sport out there, and j. even hosts a blog dedicated to Jews in sports.

But sports and fitness are two very different things.

Much of the emphasis I see on athleticism in the Jewish community is on team-based and youth sports. Of course, I know that getting kids involved in sports early in life will prepare them for a lifetime of fitness — which is why I’m a huge proponent of events like the Maccabi Games, which will be held in San Francisco this summer.

At the same time, I don’t see the same kind of emphasis on fitness that doesn’t revolve around teams. In more than three years of working at j., I can’t recall very many fun runs hosted by local Jewish organizations. And for kids like I once was, who can’t play soccer or softball (and, uh, are scared of swimming in deep water), there doesn’t seem to be the same kind of rah-rah community support.

Moreover, we’re losing a valuable opportunity to connect Judaism to something people do every day.

Most of the local JCCs have a fitness center and plenty of classes, but there’s little emphasis on the “Jewishness” of fitness. While Jewish-themed yoga and meditation are starting to catch on, they’re still on the fringes.

A morning run may not seem like the place to be thinking about Judaism. But consider this: Exercise is a way to clear your mind, to focus inward and transform yourself. It sounds a lot like prayer to me.

I joke that when I work out, I occasionally talk to God: “Please, God, just let me get through the last 10 minutes without throwing up.”

But running can be a deeply spiritual experience. What’s missing is a way for me to connect it to Judaism.

With the Maccabi Games coming to the JCCSF, many of us will be thinking about sports and fitness. I hope we can use this time to contemplate new ways to link our faith to keeping fit — and how to encourage a healthy mind, body and spirit at every age and ability level.

Rachel Freedenberg
is a copy editor at j. She can be reached at [email protected]