Jerusalem — It was a bitter cold Jerusalem evening but that didn’t stop about 50 female teachers and staffers at the ultra-Orthodox Beis Yaakov School in Geula from attending an evening lecture on “Healthy Home Baking.”
Tired though they were from a day’s work and caring for their families, the women listened with rapt attention to the lecturer, a young charedi woman, as she explained which flours and sweeteners are healthy and which ones to avoid, and how trans-fats endanger heart health.
The women nodded in agreement when the lecturer underscored that meals, including the ones served on Shabbat and the chagim, should be healthy meals, and that the simpler the meal the faster the preparation.
Once the lecture ended the women examined the recipes for carrot date muffins, fragrant orange cake and apple oatmeal pie they had received when they entered the auditorium.
The ongoing lecture series for charedi women is part of a wide-ranging heart health initiative run by the Linda Joy Pollin Cardiovascular Wellness Center for Women at Hadassah Hospital, Jerusalem. Launched a year-and-a-half ago, the Pollin center reaches out to Israel’s most disadvantaged communities — charedi Jews, Arabs and disabled people — because statistically “there is a link between health and economics,” says Osnat Keidar, the center’s interim director.
Other programs are geared toward the female employees of Hadassah Hospital and in the Jerusalem community of Pisgat Zeev, a largely working-class neighborhood.
Since Hadassah is a research and teaching facility, all of the programs are also research projects that monitor the impact of eating habits and physical activity on cardiovascular health.
One of the programs takes place in 12 Arab primary schools in the Arab sector, where teachers, students and their parents are learning how to change their lifestyle by improving their nutrition and being more active physically.
“The Arab community is at higher risk of cardiovascular disease because they do less exercise and there is more obesity and diabetes,” Keidar explains. On the up side, relatively few Arab women smoke.
The teachers are learning about health and nutrition while acquiring the skills needed to write a health promotion program and assessing their schools’ needs.
In the process, Keidar says, “they must decide on goals and objectives as well as which activities are suitable for their schools’ culture. If the school doesn’t permit girls to exercise in pants, for example, they need to ensure the girls exercise separately from the boys.”
The students’ mothers are invited to the school to take part in mother-daughter classes focused on healthy cooking and physical activity.
Another program the center runs in the Arab sector, this one in partnership with the Jerusalem Intercultural Center, is teaching nutrition as well as stress management and leadership skills to the female heads of community centers and small groups in east Jerusalem.
The Pollin center, in conjunction with the Center for Independent Living, runs a year-long program for people with physical or developmental disabilities to get them moving more and eating better.
Kiedar says people with disabilities tend to have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease because they are usually less physically active and often don’t eat a balanced diet due to a limited budget.
Elisheva Leiter, the health psychologist coordinating the charedi women’s program, cites studies showing that charedi women visit doctors less frequently and are at higher risk for cardiovascular and other health problems.
“In the charedi community it’s particularly challenging to get health information to women. There is less exposure to the secular media and sources of health information. They also have less time because most are taking care of large families while also working to support their families.”
Furthermore, says Leiter, “there’s a community focus on giving, taking care of others, and they put themselves at the bottom of the list. The women visit doctors during their pregnancies and take their children to the pediatrician but not as often go to their own doctors.”
The program at the Beis Yaakov school, which is co-run by the Bishvilaych Israel Women’s Medical Care, is multi-faceted. The female teachers and staffers have learned to spot the signs of a woman having a heart attack (which can differ from the signes of a man having a heart attack), about the benefits of physical activity and how to cook and eat more nutritiously.
Slowly but surely, Leiter says, the information has led to a change in the school environment. The teachers now serve healthier food at teachers’ meetings. They’ve posted signs in the classroom promoting exercise and better nutrition and have hired an exercise coach.
The teachers are imparting the information to their students and practicing at home what they’ve learned.
Like the Pollin center’s other programs, the charedi women’s program was created with the participants’ input.
“We went to the school, interviewed the teachers, the principal and ran focus groups and asked them to fill out questionnaires,” Leiter says.
The partnership with Bishvilaych, a charedi women’s health organization, was crucial, she says, because “they are very much accepted in the charedi world. They have done the legwork to secure the approval of the community’s rabbinical authorities.”
Seated in the Beis Yaakov auditorium, Orit, 45, a teacher, mother of nine and grandmother of five, said the health program has been a life-changer.
“Until this program I never made time for myself. Now I do and it’s good for me. It’s changed my thinking. I’ve stopped using white flour and use much less oil when cooking and baking. I’m making less baked goods.”
Orit, who did not provide her last name due to religious modesty concerns, said she now makes make a point of walking more and takes the time to go swimming.
“My children are slowly, slowly getting used to the idea of healthy eating. Change takes time.”