Working Out in the West Bank

Some 30 years ago, as I was pushing 30 (Remember that? Never trust anyone over 30!), I decided to participate in a research program being sponsored at the time by the Psychology Department of FDU in Teaneck, New Jersey. The purpose of the 25 week project was to use behavior modification as a way to encourage proper eating habits, exercise and the “Holy Grail,” successful weight loss.

The program did not work out for all its participants, but it did work out pretty well for me. I became a believer. Over 25 weeks, I averaged a two pounds per week weight loss. I went from a very overweight 250 pounds (lots of late night noodles with ketchup dinners) to a more manageable 200. More importantly, in 30 years since, despite some ups and downs, I have never returned to my former weight of 250.

The behavior modification was not strictly directed to food issues. It was also directed to daily exercise, an activity that at the time was light years away from consideration. But I gradually got into it and religiously took my morning half-hour walk. This was before iPhones and blue tooth. I would read the daily paper as I walked through the streets of Teaneck and Bogota.

After a while, the daily walk wasn’t a sufficient aerobic exercise, and so I took the leap and joined a gym. Goodbye daily walk through rain and snow; Hello Glenpointe and Elliptical machine. I did that for about a decade, until making aliyah 15 years ago.

I live just outside of Jerusalem, in a community established over 40 years ago in the sometimes brutally hot Judean Desert. If you have ever driven to the Dead Sea area from Jerusalem then you have driven right by my home in Mitzpeh Yericho. I live in the area described many different ways but often referred to simply as the West Bank.

Very little rain here and never any snow. We have two seasons here; Summer and Hell. Oh, and did I mention the hills? Lots of them. And I live at the BOTTOM of one of them.

Back in 2003, the closest gym was located at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and getting there on a regular basis was just super inconvenient, and so I eventually reverted back to my time old hitting the pavement routine.

Until last year. My knees caught up to me and I required arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn meniscus. It wasn’t the first time. And I still have another one scheduled in a few months. As a side note, being overweight doesn’t help.

The daily walk was just too painful. And so for my birthday last year my “tzadekes” of a wife purchased for me membership in the local gym.

The gym, known as the Country Club (Do not be misled by that!) is located in one of Israel’s largest “settlements,” in the lovely city of Maale Adumim located about a 15-minute drive from my home, towards Jerusalem. Mostly a bedroom community, a suburb of Jerusalem, it is home to approximately 40,000 Israelis. I realize its residents would be characterized as settlers by many, many even most, but don’t tell the residents of Maale Adumim that. The decision to live there has more to do with quality of life than with idealism.

The “Country Club” is distinctly Israeli. Glenpointe it ain’t! Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great place to do your daily workout with a varied and nice selection of equipment, an indoor Olympic pool (and an outdoor one too summertime) and even a Sauna! Still, size-wise, it’s more Israeli than American. Some of the equipment is a bit tired. And there is rarely enough room in the pool to do your laps. A line of swimmers arrive before opening time (6:00 a.m.) daily in order to fight for a swimming lane. But hey, what do you expect for $40.00 per month!

I’m there almost every morning. You pay a discounted fee if you arrive before 10:00 AM. That’s perfect for me. I am much more of a morning workout person. Always have been. The place is an odd symbiosis of Israeli and Western cultures.

Needless to say, all the signs are in Hebrew and the fees in shekels, as you would expect. Not surprisingly, you rarely hear any English being spoken.

Every single morning, without exaggeration, the exact same scene replays. The swimmers begin to line up (women in front, men to the rear) and at exactly 30 seconds before the hour of 6, the knocking on the glass door of the “Country Club” begins. One swimmer in particular uses their car key to knock on the glass in order to get the attention of the guard to unlock the door. The guard in turn displays his cell phone to show that the time is still 5:59. EVERY…SINGLE…DAY! The same scene replayed over and over ad infinitum, a la Groundhog Day.

But once you get in, the gym could be located in almost any city, USA. A nice selection of equipment, ellipticals and my favorite, the stationary bike. And of course, the required blasting of music, courtesy of MTV, via one of the many screens displaying multiple shows and early morning news reports. From the screen in front of the stationary bikes I watch the Israeli celebrity Guy Pines do his interviews. That name would probably not work out too well on American TV.

Except in an Israeli gym, you put your gym bag wherever you like, even on the turnstile into the gym, and change into your gym clothing right there. Just in case you were wondering, yes, there is a locker room with benches, showers and lockers. But why change there when you can more conveniently change in the gym itself!

The people who come to the gym are a general cross section of Israeli society, or at least of those who can afford the annual fee. Some of the men, like myself, cover their heads with a kippa. Most of the people in the gym are men. Only a small amount of socializing goes on. Personally, I haven’t made any friends (or enemies) there.  Sometimes, you hear some English spoken, sometimes Russian, but mostly Hebrew, as expected. I assume that the younger members workout in the evening hours after work.

One additional “Israeli” aspect. The “Country Club” is not a private venture. It is operated under the auspices of the municipality. The school system uses the swimming facilities throughout the year to provide swimming lessons for its students.

And yet, while pedaling on my stationary bike, it’s hard to internalize that the innocent activity of working out is taking place in an area that much of the world characterizes as contentious. Working out daily in my “West Bank” gym could be a scene played out almost anywhere in the US.

Except for just one little thing. It’s being played out in the Holy Land. In the Land of Israel. In the Country of Israel. My daily taste of Redemption.

I am dedicating my next loss of a Kilo to BDS and Airbnb.

About the Author
Rabbi Weiss was born in Miami Beach, Florida and served as Chabad community Rabbi in Teaneck, New Jersey for 21 years. He made Aliyah in July 2003 and is the author of "You Come For One Reason But Stay For Another." He is a licensed Tour Guide, father of 12, and resides in Mitzpeh Yericho.