Taking a mid-afternoon break from running his busy Williamsburg restaurant, David Lowey hustled over to a new Bushwick gym and hopped on an elliptical machine, pedaling vigorously in his full Satmar regalia.
Tzitzit dangling from his black pants and payes swinging over his ears, the 290-pound 26-year-old breathed heavily, as he scrolled through the day’s Daf Yomi Talmud page online, from a touch-screen computer panel in front of him.
When he began working out three months ago, Lowey was the lone Satmar member of Green Fitness Studio, an eco-friendly gym that opened in December and serves a primarily hipster clientele.
But with Lowey, who has already lost 60 pounds, leading the way, more than 100 members of his community now work out at Green Fitness, some in their three-piece formal wear, others sampling the gym’s complimentary sweats.
“I pushed them a lot because I feel there’s a need in the chasidic community for [exercise] — the obesity problem is overwhelming,” Lowey said.
Green Fitness Studio is not the only Williamsburg-area gym where chasidic Jews now exercise alongside hipsters. Soma in Williamsburg also has a chasidic clientele. And fitness-minded Satmars and hipsters also interact over a shared interest in cycling, at Baruch Herzfeld’s Treif Bike Gesheft bike shop in Williamsburg.
With hipsters and chasidim living within blocks of each other, “there’s a much greater intermingling of cultures and interests than we’ve been trained to expect,” Herzfeld said. “There are chasidim who do triathlons. There are many chasidim who have outside interests that would surprise us.”
While Green Fitness Studio’s owners Allan Lewis and Barry Borgen are both Jewish, outreach to the chasidic community was not part of the initial business plan. Instead, the focus for the new venture, which joins just a few other trendy new locales a couple blocks from the Morgan Avenue L-train stop, was on eco-friendliness.
Aside from its regular LifeFitness treadmills — which are actually refurbished secondhand units — Lewis said that Green Fitness’ other equipment is entirely self-powered, and the spinning studio features flooring made of bamboo, which grows much faster than most wood and is considered a more renewable resource.
While chasidic Jews were initially below the owners’ radar, when Lowey rented the gym’s outdoor atrium to host a benefit and his fascinated party guests ventured into the empty gym, shedding their fedoras and testing out the bodybuilding equipment for themselves, Lewis and Borgen had an idea — why not invite these guys to join the gym?
There were a few stumbling blocks, however.
“Men and women don’t like to work out together,” Lewis told The Jewish Week last Thursday, sporting a tank top over his multitude of tattoos.
Recently, the gym began having 8 p.m. to midnight hours for men only. Neighborhood flyers promoting the gym are now available in both English and Yiddish. And its vegan juice bar is certified kosher, offering not only fruit shakes made on the premises but also a menu of healthy foods imported from Lowey’s Old Williamsburg Café on Lee Avenue, where Lowey also now offers vegan/vegetarian-friendly menus.
“Instead of Thursday night hanging out eating cholent and kishkes, we want them to eat natural food,” said Borgen.
Borgen and Lewis, a former banker, are in the process of converting an adjoining area above the factory to additional gym space, which will include a section for women only. Lowey, for one, said his wife would definitely join if the space becomes available.
While Green Fitness Studio and Soma serve chasidic Jews along with a broader clientele, other area gyms focus more narrowly on the payes-and-sheitel crowd.
Gary Schlesinger, a Satmar businessman, opened Park Care Center, both a medical treatment facility and a fitness center, in the heart of chasidic Williamsburg about a year ago.
“I was personally encouraged by rabbis to make the community aware of the importance of exercise, so we do it as kind of a mitzvah, to educate the community and to make them aware of what’s going on,” Schlesinger said. “Obesity is a problem and the lack of exercise is a problem.”
Though he doesn’t go out of his way to bill the place as a “gym” per se, Schlesinger said he now has about 100 members who use the separate male and female fitness facilities.
“It’s very important to exercise but to do it in a kosher environment,” he said.
Isaac Abraham, a leading activist in Satmar Williamsburg agreed with Schlesinger, adding, “There are many gyms that have separate hours or days for men and women, and a lot of people that I know use them.”
Abraham said that his mother enjoys swimming at the Metropolitan Pool on Bedford Avenue in Greenpoint, which has designated swimming times for women. And his wife takes classes at Soma, the nearby gym in Williamsburg.
“For the people that are overweight, for people that have conditions and even if they don’t — just to stay healthy — [exercising] is something that I strongly support,” Abraham said.
He, however, has yet to become a gym member himself.
“I wish I was,” he said, laughing. “You’re asking the same question my wife does.”
Yet despite the increasing popularity of exercise, community watchers warn that the participation is far from what it could be, due to the stigmatization of partaking in activities deemed “secular.”
“For each chasid that we see going to the gym, there are probably five that want to go the gym but are feeling too shy or pressured against going,” Treif Bike Gesheft’s Herzfeld said.
Even those who already use the gyms agree with Herzfeld and say they rarely openly admit to working out.
“I myself only go to a gym far away from Williamsburg — ‘out of sight out of mind,’” a community member who would only identify himself as “Yoel” told The Jewish Week. “My wife joined an aerobic class in some basement with a hired, outside, non-Jewish instructor.”
“I myself am very confused about what my parents would think of it,” he continued. “I for sure hide it from them because I should spend my evenings learning Torah in shul and not in gym. I would never be able to make good shidduchim [marriage matches] with my kids if this would be public.”
All too often, Herzfeld explained, the neighborhood modesty patrols lurk at the entrances of gyms and other secular venues, ready to photograph and expose those who walk in and out. But he hopes that such behavior will not deter the newest fitness fanatics from continuing their workouts.
“I’ve seen some chasidim get in really, really great shape,” Herzfeld said triumphantly. “I’ve seen them bulk up so they look like ‘The Situation’ from ‘Jersey Shore.’”
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