The women in Monica Gordon’s yoga class stretch their arms overhead, and contort their bodies into pretzel-like poses. But in lieu of chanting “om,” the meditative yoga mantra, they say “Sha-lom,” stretching out the second syllable long and low, and there are no sun salutations or Sanskrit recitations.
Instead, with Hebrew music humming in the background, the practitioners at Congregation Bnai Yeshurun, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Teaneck, N.J., thank Hashem for granting them the ability to stretch their limbs.
Taking a page from popular culture, where yoga has exploded as a health/spiritual practice, a growing number of synagogues are helping congregants imbue their workouts with a spiritual dimension. Long the province of JCCs, classes in synagogues of all denominations across the country are now aiming to sculpt souls as well as bodies.
Jewish music, Hebrew words, prayers and even biblical passages are becoming part of an otherwise typical workout routine.
The comingling of Judaism with such exercises as yoga, Pilates and Zumba, the world music-inspired workout program first launched in Colombia in the 1990s, seems to be catching on. Some Jewish yogis have developed their own unique brands of the Eastern meditative movements, called Shalom Yoga or Aleph-Bet Yoga, because of a meditative component in the ancient art that is considered foreign to Judaism.
Jewish communal leaders describe the classes as part of an overall health trend affecting the broader community. Others believe they are an effective marketing tool for luring more people into the synagogue.
Congregants who sweat it out at the classes enjoy the heart-thumping exercise among friends in a warm and familiar environment. More importantly, the synagogue workout connects them more tightly to their faith.
“Our class is themed to this idea that Hashem gave us our body and we have to honor it, and in order to be at peace we have to exercise and be in this peaceful place,” said Gordon, who attends Bnai Yeshurun regularly.
Musing on the growing popularity of her class, which she launched about a year ago with just a handful of students, she added, “I think this is the wave of the future for shuls.” Today, Gordon’s classes draw about 20 women from all Jewish backgrounds, including women who wear skirts and head coverings to class.
One of her students, Ruth Roth of Teaneck, noted that exercising in the same facility where her family attends services on Sabbath and holidays beats the gym experience. “It’s nice to feel so at home in a place, whereas in a gym it feels so commercial,” Roth said about the all-women’s class where many of the women come garbed in modest workout attire. “It’s great to be with people who you are familiar with and with whom you share a value system.”
In a bid to stay relevant in a changing Jewish landscape, synagogues have long sought to open their doors to different kinds of programming. Over the years, they have added social workers to deal with congregants going through divorces and domestic abuse, and as the Great Recession devastated many families, synagogues responded with job counseling and other employment services.
In that context, then, Zumba in shul seems a natural progression. And the trend has even reached into haredi circles.
Other congregations around New Jersey, Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn, including fervently Orthodox Borough Park, have also found that the classes are filling a niche.
Jewish leaders attribute the trend to a variety of factors. “I think that in general there is a movement now in our community towards being more health conscious,” said Judah Isaacs, director of community engagement for the Orthodox Union. “We’re starting to see a lot of shuls doing things that are more healthy in general. We’re even seeing salad at the shul kiddush.”
But many congregations offering the classes see them as more than an instrument for helping members burn calories; they are a way to pull people into temple.
“Many synagogues are trying to find ways to get people in their doors,” observed Rabbi Daniel Alder, spiritual leader of the Conservative Brotherhood Synagogue in Gramercy Park, where the yoga class has drawn the attention of members and non-members alike. “The synagogues are trying to meet the needs of the people. Yoga is quite popular, and it’s a way to get people to come.”
Matthew Gerwitz, senior rabbi of the Reform Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, N.J., agreed. A yoga class has been well received at his synagogue, and he finds it valuable as a way to encourage more participation in the temple and connection to the community.
“We’re trying to say you can belong to the synagogue and you can take care of your mind, body and spirit and do it all in one place,” he said. “It doesn’t take away from running and kick boxing or anything else.”
A large segment of the Jewish community rarely shows up to temple, except for High Holy Days, Rabbi Gerwitz observed. Through yoga, Pilates and other types of creative programming, temple leaders are attempting to create different avenues for people to come and discover that the synagogue is relevant to their lives. “It’s a place to tend to one’s body and soul,” he said.
Anne Goodman, who teaches Pilates at Adath Emanuel in Mount Laurel, N.J., predicted that some participants may end up enjoying the temple workouts so much, they may leave wanting more. “There’s a sense of community here. There’s a sense of spirituality. I think it’s a great way to get people to come into synagogue who may have lost touch with their tradition.”
Bringing a sense of spirituality into the exercise room may not be a panacea for flagging synagogue rolls, but perhaps it’s a start.
“I don’t think Zumba is the answer to bringing people back to synagogue,” said Rabbi Charles Savenor, director of Kehillah Enrichment for United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “I think it can be one of many approaches to attracting people.”
The leaders of one temple approached Rabbi Savenor several months ago to complain they were having problems getting people to attend minyan, yet twice a week they were getting 100 people to attend a Zumba class. For the rabbi, the answer was to go where the people are.
“I said, ‘Why not have the rabbi go to the Zumba class?’”
Deena Yellin is a daily newspaper reporter in New Jersey.