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Putting A Mitzvah On Ice

Putting A Mitzvah On Ice

Monday, January 4th, 2010

Note: I rather cavalierly stated below that the people who go swimming in the ocean during the winter do not seem to do so when there are no cameras around. I stand corrected. For the record, at least one of these groups meets every Sunday during the winter.

Anyone who watches or reads the news in New York has to be aware of the Polar Bears, that wacky group of folks who annually celebrate the new year by jumping into the icy Atlantic from Coney Island beach.

A majority of these folks, for some reason, seem to older Jewish men. Maybe it dates back to some European custom they remember from the old country. Or for something deeper you can add your own cliche about a culture of prevailing over adversity and needing to build stregnth and tolerance. (My former colleague, Toby Axelrod, once told me about her grandfather’s custom of washing his face in the first snow of the season — a version of making lemons from lemonade — and it’s a custom I’ve followed ever since.)

Some of these ice bathers will argue that there are health benefits to this freezing dip, but doctors will note that hypothermia and frostbite are largely considered harmful conditions.

Since few human Polar Bears are spotted bobbing in winter surf when there are no cameras around, the more cynical will suspect that a large part of the motivation is the desire for publicity on a slow news day. As we have learned from “Fear Factor,” “Survivor” and the Balloon Boy, the prices people won’t pay for their 15 minutes these days are few and far between.

But publicity aside, there does seem to be something enticing about poking your finger in nature’s eye and doing something that’s, to be generous, counterintuitive. So it has always appealed to me as a once-only challenge, or an item for the (eventual) Bucket List. Since I already get a fair amount of publicity in my life, I could write off that motivation and embrace it simply as a self-dare.

So, when this year a friend and neighbor, Alan Skorski, noted on Facebook (in a long thread about global warming, which he dismisses as a liberal plot) that he was considering taking the plunge, I told him if we did he’d have a partner.

If anything, it would help settle our ongoing clash about climate change. If we emerged unscathed, basking in the January sunshine, I’d win. If we turned blue and had to be defrosted with hair dryers, he could make a strong case against Al Gore’s agenda of panic.

Roughly a week before the new year, Alan, being a charitable soul, came up with the idea of making something noble out of our escapade, drafting a letter to local shuls looking for sponsors. Similar to a bowl-a-thon or a race-for-the-cure, we would stay in the water in ten-second increments for each sum pledged to the local food bank for needy families. (For the record, though, Alan works in the food industry and has had more ability to experience and adjust to frozenness, which would give him an edge, whereas I keep a chair warm on my job.)

I anticipated a chilly reception, and was right. Two shuls in our neighborhood declined sending out e-mails, probably worried about the potential legal and moral liability if the stunt went bad. We considered fundraising among friends, or just putting up some money on our own. But in the end, cooler heads prevailed.

We both ended 2009 with colds, and going into the holiday weekend, it dawned on us that the timing wasn’t encouraging. The bears gathered at noon on Friday, with Shabbat just over four hours away, with potential traffic heading back to Long Island. With New Year’s Day falling on Saturday next year, there’s plenty of time to gather courage, and maybe some sponsors, for 2012.

And so, for now, we put our mitzvah on ice. Which is surely the least painful thing to put there.

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