Jerusalem — Three times a week, and soon to be four, Rachel Lobel heads to a women’s-only gym in the center of the city. Once there, she trades in her long skirt and blouse for exercise clothes and removes the hat she wears in public.
“My head gets too hot when I exercise,” Lobel, a slim, youthful woman in her late 60s said with a smile, noting that Jewish law permits a woman to go with her hair uncovered if she is in the company of women only.
Lobel is one of the growing number of religious women and men who believe that staying fit is vital to both their physical and spiritual health, and who make a conscious effort to exercise and eat right.
While there are no statistics on how many Orthodox Israelis exercise on a regular basis, the numbers are clearly growing. During the past two decades, between 2,000 and 2,500 religious Jews have become sports or dance instructors and hydro-therapists through programs run by the Wingate Institute, Israel’s National Centre for Physical Education and Sport, according to Eli Sadres, director of Wingate’s school of coaching.
“The program started off small but today there are around 150 to 200 religious graduates every year,” Sadres said of the programs that run in Jerusalem and predominantly Orthodox Bnai Brak.
Another program — there are options for gym instructors, preschool exercise, dance, hydrotherapy and other subjects — will soon open in the northern city of Safed.
Unlike the majority of non-Orthodox women enrolled in Wingate program, the participants in the religious program often study while pregnant.
“One year, we started with 20 participants and ended the year with 31,” Sadres said, referring to the 11 babies born. The program makes accommodations for childcare.
Today, the percentage of Modern Orthodox who exercise is on par with the general population, Sadres said. In contrast, the percentage of haredi Jews committed to regular exercise “is still quite small,” said Sadres, the Wingate administrator. According to the community’s norms, time spent in study or prayer is often considered preferable to a good gym workout.
The Kosher Gym, a large facility in Jerusalem, is the address for haredi men — and others — who want to hit the treadmill, the weight room, or do martial arts in a men-only environment.
Launched by David Melki, an Orthodox immigrant from France, in 2005, the gym has a membership that’s about 30 percent haredi, 30 percent Modern Orthodox and 40 percent traditional/secular.
The gym discontinued women’s-only hours a couple of year ago due to the emergence of many women’s health clubs in the city.
That enabled the gym to expand its men’s only hours; it’s open from 6:30 a.m. till 11 p.m.
The gym is unique in that it offers a TV- and video-free environment, a strictly kosher cafeteria, and afternoon and evening prayers. The treadmills feature special holders that many clients use to study Jewish texts.
“But not everybody studies, of course,” said Melki, a former Israeli tae kwon do champion.
Though music plays in the background, it is devoid of anything that could make religious clients uncomfortable. No music is played at all during the nine days preceding the fast day of Tisha b’Av.
The gym is certified “kosher” by the Eda Haredit, a haredi organization that upholds and monitors modesty.
Moshe, a 25-year-old yeshiva student who declined to give his last name, said his rosh yeshiva “encourages” his students to exercise regularly “because it’s a mitzvah to stay healthy. I see people here learning gemara and studying in the shiur,” or religious studies class that takes place every evening in the cafeteria.
Yaron, a secular client of the Kosher Gym who also didn’t want his last name published, said he enjoys the wide range of people who utilize the facility. “I wouldn’t be meeting large numbers of religious people outside the gym, and it’s been a good experience,” the university student said.
“There are rabbis who come here and rabbis whose rabbis have told them to come here,” Yaron continued. “I can sit down in the cafeteria and eat, post-work out, and listen to the daf yomi shiur [page-a-day of Talmud study] if the mood strikes me. It’s something I wouldn’t do otherwise.”
While the kosher gym concept is a novelty for secular fitness buffs, it’s vital to Carmit, a 28-year-old sports instructor at Swan, a women’s-only gym and spa in Jerusalem.
Dressed in a gray sweatshirt and sweatpants, her hair covered by a knitted cap, Carmit said the women’s only environment has enabled her to fulfill her lifelong dream of being a trainer. She received her training at Wingate.
“It’s important to be both healthy and dress and act modestly, and I’m able to be both.” Carmit said.
Because several of Swan’s clients are religious, the all-woman management makes sure that men don’t enter the exercise areas. Workmen are requested to make repairs after hours. Deliverymen go no farther than the lobby.
Rachel Lobel, who frequents another women-only gym, calls taking care of her health “a religious imperative.”
Her husband, who is remarkably fit at 83, “rises at 5 a.m. every day except Shabbat and does 200 push-ups before going to the gym, where he walks on the treadmill.”
Both feel it’s a mitzvah to take care of themselves.
“Hashem created us in good health, and the body is like the mikdash, The Temple,” Lobel said. “It’s on loan to us for 120 years, and it’s responsibility to take care of it!”