Not your grandmother’s Torah study

Not your grandmother’s Torah study

'Spinagogue' challenges both mind and body

Before the spinning begins, Rabbi Kirshner, reflected many times in the mirror, teaches text.

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner of Temple Emanu-El of Closter cares about wellness – both his own and that of his congregants.

Kirshner, who attends spinning classes three times a week, also cares about Jewish learning and making the synagogue an exciting place to be.

“We’re doing things here that are fun and different, creative and dynamic,” said Kirshner, who last week coordinated a study session/exercise program for the shul’s women’s study group. “While Judaism is an ancient religion, it has modern things to say about looking after our health,” he added, calling the combined session “out of the box.”

To begin, participants spent 90 minutes exploring the sources compiled in a six-page study sheet. Kirshner said he always provides such materials for the study group, which has been meeting 12 times a year for the last five years.

Members range in age from their early 30s to octogenarians, said the rabbi, noting that he usually gets between 25 and 35 attendees. Past sessions have explored topics from Holocaust poetry to bioethics “to the basic unpacking of the Talmud.”

At Friday’s session, the rabbi used sources from Bible to Mishnah, Talmud to Maimonides.

“I used texts from Leviticus about guarding our health and quoted Maimonides about getting our heart rate up in the morning,” he said, adding that he also spoke about the concept of loving our neighbors as ourselves. That, he said, indicates that we should love ourselves, too, and thus take care of our bodies. Also sprinkled in were conversations about eating and nutrition and a look at talmudic warnings against living dangerously.

After the class, participants were invited to participate in a 45-minute spin class, compliments of Flywheel in Englewood. The class was led by fitness instructor John Wellman, described by Kirshner as “one of my favorite spin teachers.”

“I spin regularly,” said the rabbi, who joined 23 congregants at the class. “It’s fun,” he added, noting that “John is funny – he called it ‘spinagogue.'”

But, he said, there was more to it than just having a good time.

“It’s not your grandmother’s Torah study,” he said.

“It got us out of our element. Sometimes you need to be outside the box.”

While the material could have been explored in a library, “this takes it to another level,” he said. “Kids can learn about science from a book, but it’s different to look at things under a microscope.

“The goal wasn’t to start people exercising. My goal was to be a rabbi and educate people. I just wanted to be doing something different – as a rabbi.”

Next year, the rabbi hopes to have a series on kashrut and nutrition, perhaps building in a tour of Whole Foods and visits with the nutritionist at the JCC on the Palisades.

“We’ll look at how kashrut comes into play with organic foods and the treatment of animals,” he said. “It will take us out of our comfort level.”

Member Donna Weintraub from Haworth, who has been part of the study group for five years, said that before the class, “I didn’t know that it was Jewish law or custom to take care of yourself through exercise. “Rather, she said, she thought that – with the exception of the modern Orthodox – most Orthodox Jews do not exercise.

“I was surprised,” she said, adding that while her own family exercises and eats right, “I found the link to history fascinating.”

Shari Brooks, a new participant and Norwood resident, said the teachings of Maimonides “struck me as surprisingly similar to the current medical advice of today in terms of the importance of daily exercise, including the type of exercise, getting eight hours of sleep, eating well, and the overall caring for our bodies as paramount.” In fact, she said, “I learned that a healthy body – which includes a healthy mind – precedes perfection of the soul…. The text could have been presented in a Dr. Oz or Dr. Joel Fuhrman book.”

The group member said the class underscored the importance of making exercise and caring for her physical and mental health “a top priority. With four kids and busy schedules, sometimes taking care of my own health, including going to the gym, meditating, and getting enough sleep, can feel a bit self-indulgent.”

Elle Rubach of Tenafly has been with the study group for two years.

“I loved the idea of combining a spiritual discussion about one’s well-being with the physicality of a spin class, which can also provide a spiritual and motivating lift to one’s mental state,” she said. “In a spin class, when you find yourself giving maximum effort and you’re ‘in the zone’ alongside with other spinners who happen to be your friends and study partners, it makes for a very unique and motivating experience. After studying the Talmud and reading text that specifically states the importance of loving yourself and treating your body with respect, the spin class felt great and made the physical intensity of it that much easier.”

Like Brooks, Rubach cited the Maimonides quote, “Know that perfecting of the body precedes perfection of the soul.”

“[It] really spoke to me because before studying this text with Rabbi Kirshner, I thought you had to cultivate and strengthen your soul first and then the physical health and well-being would follow,” she said. Maimonides, however, “felt that if you wanted to get to place of happiness and contentment, you must be strong and fit in order to be ready and able to tackle the challenges of finding that inner peace,” she continued.

Now, she said, “I feel empowered to take care of myself, knowing the Talmud states that eating right and getting the proper amounts of sleep actually makes me a better Jew.”

After the text portion of the class, Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, far left, and his students are ready to spin.
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