Torah With Treadmills

Sports has gradually breached the modesty barrier and become a legitimate leisure pursuit among the ultra-Orthodox. Sixth article in a series.

An excited Naomi Borodiansky pauses in the doorway of the fitness studio. The women in the studio (actually a room at the administrative offices of Jerusalem's Romema neighborhood) move frenetically, their arms following the beat. The strongly rhythmic Hassidic music thundering from a battered tape player in the corner reinforces the aerobic sequence. The reverberation from the endless stamping of feet on the wooden floor seems about to burst through the door, but Borodiansky, a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) woman who looks like a typical teacher from a Bais Yaakov school, is not fazed by the noise. "It makes me almost weep with excitement," she murmurs.

What looks like an ordinary aerobics lesson turns out to be the practical examination that these students must pass before qualifying as professional physical education and fitness instructors in the Haredi sector. After all her efforts to give a kosher approval to something as un-Haredi as aerobics, no wonder Borodiansky feels exultant at the sight before her. The students' enthusiasm is transforming her fragile and relatively restricted experiment into a fait accompli. If the rhythmically pumping fists could talk, they might well be saying: Look, we're doing a sport.

This course is going to change Yehudit Luzon's entire life. Luzon, 22, studied to be a teacher at the new Bais Yaakov Seminary in Jerusalem, though her most conspicuous talent is physical education. At 16, she was already giving exercise classes for groups of girls in private homes in Haredi neighborhoods. "I would come to Yiddish-speaking Haredi homes, and the mother would move the living room furniture aside so we could hold the class there," she recalls. She refuses to say so outright, but it is no secret that in order to protect their good name, most of the Bais Yaakov graduates do not opt to become physical education teachers. With this course, given in conjunction with the Wingate Institute, Luzon feels close to realizing her dream of opening a professional physical fitness center for ultra-Orthodox women.

Aerobics is not the only sport that has breached the barriers of ultra-Orthodox modesty. The Haredi public has begun trying out a variety of others that reach well beyond what is customary in this society: from walking to workout sessions to women's basketball. But the phenomenon is still small-scale, according to some preliminary data now available from a survey conducted at the end of last August by the Israel Association for Popular Sports.

Among the population classified by the survey as Haredi or religious, 20 percent engage in a sport frequently (at least three times a week), 22 percent fairly often (once or twice weekly), and 7 percent infrequently (from one to three times a month). About half of this group is not involved in any type of sport.

Edna Buckstein, the nation's main proponent of walking, says that even as ultra-Orthodox men and women are entering this new and unfamiliar territory, they are looking for modes of activity that will be relatively comfortable for them. Walking tops the list for Haredi and religious people. Some 40 percent of respondents reported that they walk regularly, compared with 30 percent of the general public. In conspicuously Haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem, such as Har Nof, Ramat Shlomo and the Bukharan Quarter, lots of people may be seen walking vigorously in accepted aerobic style. Residents of Har Nof, which has a walking club, recently asked the city to create designated walking lanes.

If sports are generally marketed as a way of enhancing the body or developing muscles, the message for the Haredi community is different, at least overtly. The survey found that about 70 percent of ultra-Orthodox or religious respondents who engage in a sport explained that they do so for health reasons, compared to 60 percent of the general public. Evidently, as in many other cases involving new phenomena to the Haredi world, adopting a lifestyle that includes regular physical activity still involves a certain inner dissonance. Wearing sneakers as one's default footwear, for instance, is not yet viewed as legitimate. The sense of unease and the perpetual need to justify one's actions come through clearly in what people are quoted as saying about the right to exercise in Haredi circles. When ultra-Orthodox people discuss the subject, sooner or later they always quote the Rambam, who said (roughly): "So long as a person exercises to the point of fatigue... he won't be sick and his powers will be strengthened... and those who are sedentary and don't exercise... will have pain all their lives and their power will be enfeebled."

Health provides a necessary, if not all-inclusive, validation. Bracha (not her real name), a mother of seven, relates that sport is her refuge "from my house, my kids, my husband, the whole mess." She belongs to the Sephardic-Lithuanian community and is married to a scholar. Once a week she plays basketball with other ultra-Orthodox women in a closed gym in Jerusalem's Ramot neighborhood. Bracha, who says she never runs out of energy, thinks that sports provide an outlet for energy for many women like her. Aside from basketball, she swims early in the mornings and also works out.

Many Haredi women interviewed for this article were doing their stint on a treadmill at the time, or waiting for an exercise class while pushing their babies to and fro in a stroller in an effort to lull them to sleep beforehand, or had just finished a late evening walk or exercise class. They described being involved in sports as a way of giving themselves a time out. Others got their husbands or daughters to join in. Borodiansky herself, a mother of eight who generally walks late at night with her husband, a well-known rabbi at the Kol Torah Yeshiva, says that sometimes walking gives them their first chance to talk away from the kids after a long day. A mother of 12 who walks with the club from the Bukharan Quarter in Jerusalem says that she takes a different child with her each time and is able to give each of them individual attention in that way.

More openness

Dr. Tamar Elor, a scholar of Haredi society at Hebrew University, sees the increasing Haredi interest in sports as an inseparable part of an emerging leisure culture. In that sense, sports is a complementary phenomenon to what she terms "Haredi loitering": roaming the malls or public parks, or going to museums. "The general change is that the Haredi sector is greater now," says Elor. "The Haredi no longer wants to be different, `the chosen people.' He wants to be normal, a religious person with a job and money, who sometimes also goes out to have fun." Elor identifies this new leisure culture as a sign that Haredi culture is coming of age and abandoning poverty as a value. The change is more visible in Jerusalem because Haredi society there, compared to Bnei Brak, is less prone to criticize. The phenomenon may be observed in other areas, too, says Elor. Women who live in the Gur Hassidic neighborhood, for example, often walk from Ramat Hachayal toward Ganei Yehoshua or the Ayalon Mall. Haredim are also exercising and riding bicycles in the parks. "The profound change is in being connected with the body," says Elor. "And the Haredi concern with public visibility is changing, too, particularly among women. Walking outdoors used to be seen as a problem." There has been no marked attempt on the part of the rabbis to prohibit sports till now, but Elor predicts that there will be.

The new legitimacy sports has acquired as a leisure pursuit involved abandoning the demonic image of sport as a Western cultural value. Dr. Aharon Arend, of the Department of Talmud at Bar Ilan University, explains the prohibition on sports from a Haredi standpoint by referring to the glorification of the body that was viewed as part of Greek culture. For men, another consideration was that it took time away from Torah study. In the United States, in any event, sports is such an inseparable part of the culture that it even penetrated the world of the yeshivas. The American influence is perceptible at Jerusalem's Mir Yeshiva, where there are many American students playing baseball or basketball on Fridays in open areas around the yeshiva.

Where sports are concerned, however, the real change agents appear to be women, perhaps due to their greater awareness of aesthetics. The narrow range of sports options for Haredi women led many of them to body shaping centers, which are designed for the secular public and not so close to Haredi neighborhoods. Considering that just a few years ago the ultra-Orthodox were uncertain about having Haredi women work at secular workplaces, their integration with secular women as a matter of course at these body shaping centers is certainly a breakthrough. One center, Studio C, is especially popular with Haredi women because it is for women only. The club's own internal survey found that about 17 percent of the clients were religious or Haredi women. At the center's branches in Ramat Gan (adjacent to Bnei Brak), and in a few of the Jerusalem branches located near neighborhoods with high concentrations of Haredi residents, at any given time, all the women present may be ultra-Orthodox.

Luzon is one of those younger Haredi women who could be viewed as pushing ahead the process of change in Haredi society with their bare hands. She is part of the growing wave of professionalism in various fields now perceptible in Haredi society. She does not think that secular women who teach physical fitness are sufficiently aware of the sensitivity required for working with women who have given birth many times. When she saw a small ad a few months ago in a Haredi newspaper about a new professional course at Lakah (the Haredi Training Center for Community and Society), offered in conjunction with the Wingate Institute, to train instructors for teaching early-childhood classes in movement, she telephoned the center's director, Borodiansky, to persuade her to open a course for aerobics and fitness instructors.

Eighty women aged 25 to 32 are studying in the three courses launched this year. A few are already graduates of teaching seminaries, and most are married women with several children. As is only natural in a pioneering course of this kind, most of the participants are English-speaking, newly religious, or Orthodox women from the national-religious sector who prefer a women-only framework. The stature enjoyed by Borodiansky, whose family is very well known among the Haredi public, has helped draw participants who are Hassidic or studying at the women's seminaries. Most participants, however, are taking the early-childhood movement course.

The declared goal of these students is to teach in informal settings within the Haredi community or, like Luzon, to turn entrepreneur and give private classes in the afternoon. "Our people avoided sport for years because so much of it involves the adulation of power," says another student in the course for fitness instructors, Miriam Gross. "But as long as it's done modestly, separately, without listening to Britney Spears in the background, there's nothing wrong in the movements themselves." Gross, a newly-religious recent immigrant from Germany, intends to open an exercise studio in her own neighborhood in Ramat Beit Shemesh. She is not worried about a lack of demand.

Kids, too

On a recent evening at the Haredi "Active Club" in Jerusalem, which was opened about a year ago by Freidie Margalit, 22, who describes herself as Haredi, some of the women were wearing head coverings (including some who were pregnant) and trousers. It was equally noticeable that the women, some of whom hail from Mea Shearim, favored exercise outfits a size or two larger than their street clothes. Other women who prefer to work out at secular fitness centers have gradually acquired ordinary work-out garb that fits more snugly. That women are flocking to Margalit's studio reveals their desire for the homey environment to which they are accustomed. Margalit, who grew up in England and has a business administration degree from Harvard, understands her constituency's needs and has a full-time babysitter on hand. A second branch is soon to open, at a Haredi mall in Jerusalem; this one will include a beauty salon as well.

The location of the Haredi Geula Fitness studio in the Histadrut building on Strauss Street, near Shabbat Square, is symbolic of this revolution in Haredi consciousness. The entrance is not right on the main street, but the club's brochure is freely distributed at the information desk in the building's lobby. A veteran lobby staffer who has been there for more than 20 years recalls that at one time, when the building was a Mapai (old pioneering Socialist) stronghold, Haredim stayed far away from it and would never set foot on the actual premises. The building, together with the neighboring Edison Theater, served as a type of natural barricade, effectively barring any expansion of the Haredi quarter northward.

The studio's owner, David Malachi, a tae kwan do expert who describes himself as someone who has become more of a believer than before, says that Haredim were persuaded to come only after he promised them that the studio would completely separate between men and women, and that the music would be Hassidic. Aside from an elegant workout space, he also offers martial arts classes for young people and adults. The classes are given by newly-religious instructors, and sometimes neighborhood children with their long side curls may be seen sneaking into the lessons where they stand and watch, wide-eyed. As with many other areas of Haredi life, this revolution has yet to reach the yeshiva world. The educational institutions have always been this community's most conservative sector. Some movement is discernible even there, however. With respect to most of the sports-related initiatives involving the Haredi public, like the courses at the Community and Society Institute, the small Haredi Sports Department at the Jerusalem Municipality has been involved behind the scenes.

This department has encouraged revolutionary changes in recent years at the heder (the Haredi equivalent of elementary school) level, sometimes culminating in the appearance of soccer-size balls in the school yards. Over the last three years, the grounds of these institutions have sprouted jungle gyms where the youngsters can clamber around during their long school day. The department recommends an item called a funnel basket: a user-friendly construction shaped like an oversized, upside-down funnel, painted in lively colors, through which balls can be tossed. The main thing is not to hint at the word "basketball." Will the new gymnasts go on to demand sports activities for their children, and induce changes in the educational sphere as well? If so, the revolution will be complete.