Do Day School Health Programs Make the Grade?

Twenty parents from the Emek Hebrew Academy in Valley Village have come on a chilly winter evening to hear Dr. Francine Kaufman, a national expert on diabetes and childhood obesity, talk about promoting children’s health. Although the school has 455 families, Rabbi Sholom Strajcher, the school’s dean, is not discouraged by the modest turnout.

“We have to change the culture…. It’s a challenge,” he said.

Strajcher (pronounced Striker) tells the group he’s been overweight since childhood.

“When I was growing up, no doctor or teacher ever mentioned my weight,” he said. “I am reaping the result of all those years.”

He is not alone. In fact, Strajcher’s students are even more likely to struggle with weight issues. According to the Institute of Medicine, an agency under the National Academy of Sciences, more than 9 million U.S. children above the age of 6 are considered overweight or obese. The litany of health consequences associated with obesity — diabetes, cancer and heart disease, to name a few — might result in today’s children becoming the first generation in American history with a lower life expectancy than their parents. For children born in 2000, their lifetime risk of developing diabetes exceeds 30 percent.

Many can name factors contributing to these alarming trends: An increase in sedentary activities, such as television and computers; greater demand for convenience foods; advertisements targeting kids with high-fat foods, and an environment that discourage walking and physical activity. Given the breadth of the problem, solutions require action on all levels of society — from government and business to schools and families. Jewish day schools, which may not see their role in the equation, have been slow to address these concerns.

But some have begun to take action.

Let’s Get Physical

At Jewish day schools, the demands of a dual curriculum coupled with limited outdoor space can cause physical education to take a back seat. This is decidedly not the case at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) Day School. When Head of School Sheva Locke joined the Encino school four years ago, one of her first priorities was instituting an athletic program. The school now employs an athletic director and two full-time coaches who supervise physical education classes and activities at recess and lunch.

The athletic department also runs an extensive after-school team sports program. Kindergarteners through third-graders can join in a Junior Sports Club, while fourth- through sixth-graders can participate in competitive sports, including basketball, soccer, football and volleyball — and 98 percent of them do. The teams compete in the San Fernando Valley Private School League. VBS provides transportation to off-site games to make participation easier on parents and children.

“The focus was on getting as many children as possible to participate and to play,” Locke said. “The problem solving and goal setting that goes along with having a physical fitness program is equally as important.”

During the school day itself, VBS provides physical education twice a week, a figure fairly standard in the day school world. For students who don’t participate in after-school physical activities, that amount is woefully inadequate, according to physician Fran Kaufman, professor of pediatrics at USC’s Keck School of Medicine and head of the Center for Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism at Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles.”

“Kids should be active for 60 minutes each day,” she said.

The state of California requires that children in first through sixth grade have a minimum of 200 minutes of physical education time per 10 days of school, which averages 20 minutes per day. In seventh through 12th grade, the time requirement doubles. (According to the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, 51 percent of school districts reviewed failed to meet the state’s minimum requirement for physical education time.)

Those numbers fall far short of the 60 minutes daily recommended by Kaufman and the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans. And as Emek’s Strajcher points out, not all of that time involves being active.

“Even when kids are supposedly playing, how much of that time is spent waiting for a turn?” he asks.

At Maimonides Academy in West Hollywood, instructor Alan Rosen has designed a unique program where lessons on character and values are integrated into physical education. On the play area used by the elementary school students, circles painted on the blacktop list such values as responsibility, humility, effort and cooperation. The words are incorporated into songs and games, and are referred to in the course of regular physical activities.

“If it’s important, you find the time,” said Maimonides’ principal, Rabbi Karmi Gross. “Physical activity doesn’t have to be divorced from what else is being done.”

By the Book

Inside the classroom, the content and amount of wellness-related curriculum varies from school to school. An informal survey taken by the Bureau of Jewish Education of Los Angeles on nutrition education garnered responses from only 10 schools out of more than 30. Of those, half had no “formal” nutrition curriculum, and relied primarily on teacher-generated materials.

Because health is not a subject for which the state requires standardized testing, public school districts vary in the degree of emphasis they give the topic. Los Angeles Unified School District specifies knowledge and abilities that students are expected to master in grades four, seven, and high school.

In both public and private schools, a dedicated health class is generally taught in middle school. Seventh graders at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge take a health and life sciences class that focuses on the physiology and biology of the human body. An eighth-grade nutrition unit includes a screening of the school version of “Super Size Me,” in which the filmmaker traced his odyssey eating McDonald’s fare exclusively three times a day for one month, and how his body suffered as a result.

“We talk about individual choices and about society, and we discuss where responsibility lies,” said science teacher Liz Wenger. “We look at how society is changing the way we eat, such as not eating at home as much, and eating larger quantities and higher fat foods.”

The students calculate their own caloric intake and use a calorimeter to measure the amount of food energy in various foods. They also build pumps to replicate the heart and use stoppers to illustrate cholesterol build-up.

VBS employs a full-time nurse whose duties include teaching health-related lessons to all grade levels. At Milken Community High School, ninth graders take a class, designed with input from a health educator and a rabbi, which explores physical, social and emotional health as well as sexuality and tobacco, drug and alcohol abuse.

Ess, Ess Mein Kind

Learning about nutrition doesn’t necessarily translate into action. Most of the schools interviewed expressed concerns about the food they provided to students, not only through formal meal programs, but also informal means such as class parties or incentives.

Eating can be an emotionally charged issue given its integral role in Jewish practice. The ubiquity of food is illustrated in the oft-repeated definition of Jewish holidays:

They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.

“Every time we celebrate, we celebrate with food — and there’s nothing wrong with that,” said Emek’s Strajcher. The question is what kind of food and how much. He said that traditionally, when students began to learn the aleph-bet (Hebrew alphabet) in school, the rebbe would put a drop of honey on each letter so that the children would associate learning with sweetness. Even in the synagogue itself, congregants throw candy for auf-rufs (engagements), bar mitzvahs and other celebrations.

Some parents are troubled by the amount of sugary snacks given to their children.

Kaufman noted that packaged kosher snacks can be some of the worst offenders in terms of saturated fat content.

Last year, Emek parents formed a committee and worked with the school’s caterer and a nutritionist to improve the healthfulness of school lunches. Parent Amy Leibowitz, who spearheaded the committee, said it was a challenge to satisfy nutritional, budgetary and kashrut considerations simultaneously. The results included adding fruit and salad, subtracting dessert, serving foods that are baked instead of fried, serving leaner, lower-salt meat, and making water available at mealtimes. She said that classes now celebrate all the month’s birthdays at one time to limit the influx of sugary treats.

Maimonides also revised its lunch program, and modified the practice of using food as an incentive. Instead of giving Israeli chocolates as rewards, principal Gross now gives Israeli postcards.

“We’re not yet where we want to be,” he said. “But we’ll eventually get there.”
Vending machine soft drink sales — a tempting source of revenue for some schools — will likely decline due to a decision announced in May by the nation’s largest beverage distributors to discontinue selling beverages with more than 100 calories to schools. It is estimated that the practice will affect 87 percent of the public and private school market.

As schools grapple with decisions regarding food policies, Emek’s Strajcher says that they can look to Judaism for a model of dietary self control.

“Kashrut [shows us that] when it comes to food, there has to be a certain discipline,” he said.

And as Eileen Horowitz, principal at Temple Israel of Hollywood, noted, “The [mission] for a Jewish school is teaching how to make good choices. That applies to how we talk to a neighbor as well as what we put in our mouth.”

Just Do It

Some administrators cited the challenge of fitting in adequate time for physical activity and comprehensive health education on top of an already full dual curriculum.

“There’s tremendous pressure for time,” acknowledged Dr. Roxie Esterle, Heschel’s associate head of school. “It’s a very full day and it gets fuller and fuller,” she said, mentioning computers and technology as examples.

Secular schools also struggle with these issues. A recently released national report found that the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was threatening physical education time because subjects that are not tested — including physical education — receive lower priority. In Los Angeles, 68 percent of high school students failed to meet recommended levels of physical activity according to a 2005 study by the CDC.

Yet, practicality dictates that schools take action on this issue: The California Department of Education states that healthy, active and well-nourished children are more likely to attend school and are more prepared and motivated to learn. The 2006 Shape of the Nation Report, issued jointly by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education and the American Heart Association, recommends that schools across the country “make physical education instruction the cornerstone of a comprehensive school physical activity program that also includes health education, elementary school recess, after-school physical activity clubs and intramurals, high school interscholastic athletics, walk/bike to school programs and staff wellness programs.”

Given that Judaism mandates the care of our bodies, Jewish day schools have an imperative to address these issues.

“If you’re not healthy, it’s hard to serve God with fullness,” Strajcher said. “Your soul can only do what it needs to do when your physical self is intact.”
He hopes to spare his students from facing the weight issues that have plagued him since childhood, and from the dire consequences which may result.

“If this is preventable and we can do something about it, it’s our obligation to do so,” he said.

Health Report Card for Schools

To determine how well your school promotes wellness, here are some questions to ask:

  1. How much physical education time is allotted?
  2. Is the physical education instructor certified?
  3. Are children actively engaged during physical education and recess?
  4. Does the school offer after-school activities or team sports?
  5. Do health lessons address nutrition and physical activity?
  6. What is the content of school lunches, and who determines this?
  7. Are fresh fruits and vegetables offered daily?
  8. Does the school have a policy on desserts and snacks?
  9. Is there a vending machine on campus? What does it offer?

From Fritos to Freedom

“I bet you could lose the weight if you really wanted to."

"You just need to have more will power."

"Come on, don’t be lazy."

Struggling with being overweight affects more than 75 percent of all Americans, and is a serious problem for the Jewish population in the United States. But it is not a moral issue.

I’ve always struggled with my weight. I could lose the weight but never keep it off. I remember many times getting to my goal weight and then thinking, "Hooray, now I can eat again." I usually would end up gaining all the weight back that I had lost plus more. That was always the problem with diets for me.

And it would always start with that first bite. Fritos chips. My head would say, "Oh we’ll just have one bag, you’ve been so good, it’s just this time, we’ve had a tough day, we just need to take the edge off." And then, of course, the all-famous, "We’ll get right back on track tomorrow."

The only problem was that it was never just one bag and it always led to more food — maybe not that day, but maybe later that week or the next, and soon I ended up back to my old ways of eating.

There’s the "normal" type of eater who might have gone through a traumatic or stressful experience, put on a few pounds and, when the experience passed, was able to take the weight off. Then, there is someone like me. Without realizing it, I used food to alter my state. It was a way of life. I didn’t know any other way. Did that mean I was lazy? Lacked willpower? Liked to be overweight? Didn’t care about my looks? No.

I was a grazer kind of an eater — just kind of noshed all day long. I didn’t even realize it until the scale made me take a hard, honest look.

I guess it is called an eating disorder. I remember trying to explain it to my Jewish grandmother, of blessed memory. "Vat’s an eating order?" she would ask.

I said, "Bubbe, it’s eating dis order — it means I would eat dis order of french fries, dis order of onion rings and dis order of ice cream. Now you understand dis disorder!"

Why was I altering my emotional state with food? Who knows? I believe we are all here to learn how to serve God, and part of that process is learning to live life on life’s terms, not turning to outside fixes when things don’t go our way. This is the path of emotional maturity. This is the path toward the Almighty. We are all looking for God. My overworking, overthinking, overeating, overeverything were ways I unconsciously cut myself off from God. But, on the other hand, it also has been part of the process to become closer to God.

It’s neat when you first lose the weight. I lost 50 pounds. People really get excited. "Wow, you look fantastic." "Wowee gazowee, you look awesome!"

But now I’ve been at goal weight for a long time and nobody says anything, which I can kind of understand. What are they gonna say, "Wow you look the same!"?

I remember the first time I tried eating in a different way. My kind friend suggested that I eat three meals a day with life in between.

"Life in between?" What did that mean? I have come to learn that it means life on life’s terms. Happy, sad, glad, mad, frustrated, excited — all feelings and emotions that life brings that has nothing to do with food. So the first day of my new food plan I ate my breakfast, and then a few hours later I remember feeling like I would actually starve if I didn’t put some food in my mouth. I called my friend. I told her, "If I don’t eat something right now, I’m not gonna make it!" I’ll never forget what she said to me.

"Wow, I never heard on the news or in the newspaper headlines: "Women dies of starvation from not eating between breakfast and lunch!"

As I continue to grow in my Yiddishkayt, I see that part of maturity comes from delaying instant gratification. Who knew? You mean I can say no to Fritos and step up the ladder on emotional growth?

Some people are normal eaters and can have a cookie or two. God has a sense of humor. For me one cookie was too much and 1,000 was never enough.

He used french fries, Fritos and frozen yogurt to get my attention. Now since I can’t indulge like I use to, I have to call on him. So today I say thank you God for this funny relationship I have today with food. It has brought me closer to the Almighty.

On the Sabbath, the way I related to food was avodah zora-like (idol worshipping). Why was I thinking about the dessert at "Kiddush" while the rabbi was speaking? I really had to take a look at that. How can Shabbat be about God if it is about the food? I’d try little tricks — eating perfectly in front of others and then going to town when I got home — or saying I’m just going to have one cookie, or one piece of chocolate. But once that sugar hit, I’d be making a new trail in the rug with going back and forth to the kitchen for more.

By being sick and tired of being sick and tired of my relationship with food, things have changed.

Maybe your thing isn’t food. With the overweight person it’s easier to be judgmental. But know that fat is not a moral issue.

I remember that before I lost the weight I went to see Dr. Goldberg. She said, "Part of your problem is that you push down your feelings with food. You need to express yourself. Get it out, don’t push it down. Out, out, out. Express yourself."

The next night when I was getting mugged at gunpoint, I told my assailant, "I’m feeling very angry." He put the gun down, looked at me and said, "Dr. Goldberg?"

Now that the weight is off I noticed I was shopping more. I decided to have a meeting with my rabbi. I asked him how to have a meaningful, happy, fulfilling life. He basically told me that the goal is to align my will with God’s will. I left the meeting with the rabbi and I was very moved.

"Make my will God’s will. I think I got it! Wow, this is deep. Oh, yeah. I am a spiritual giant now. Mashiach now!"

And as I was seriously contemplating aligning my will with Gods will, I drove to Beverly Hills.

So I am standing on Rodeo Drive looking at a dress in the window that I know I can’t afford and I say to myself, "How do I know it’s not God’s will? Why would God have me on Rodeo Drive? I know. Maybe I should go and try the dress on and see if it fits then I’ll know if it’s God’s will. It fits! It must be God’s will. Well, just to make sure, if the money is in my purse, then I’ll know it’s God’s will."

I put my hand in my purse and pull out my Visa Card. "Aaaah, he’s everywhere you want him to be."

You see that’s the great thing about credit cards. Now I have the dress, and God has 30 days to get me the money.

If you do not suffer from food issues, then God bless you and remember, "There for the grace of God go I." But if you are struggling, there is hope and help. If you are a friend or family member of someone who has food-related issues, keep in mind that help is out there for those who want it, unfortunately not for those who need it.

I write this in loving memory of my father, of blessed memory, Label ben Meisha, who died of a heart attack. He was overweight and diabetic and said, "If I can’t have my sugar at night, I’d rather die," which he did.

Sandy Wolshin Mendlowitz is a
writer, motivational speaker and stand-up comic. She is also a dating coach for
marriage-minded women at

Obesity WeighsHeavily on Jews

Lynn Kaufman admits that she comes from “big, hearty stock.”
But after 30 years of being overweight, the Westside resident decided to get

“I had gotten to a really scary number on the scale,” said
Kaufman, a veteran of numerous diets and 10 years with Overeaters Anonymous. At
long last, Kaufman lost 42 pounds with Weight Watchers and has kept them off
for two years.

Of course, she needs to stay slim to keep her job as a
Weight Watchers group leader.Spirited and passionate about health
consciousness, Kaufman even drastically curtailed her hours as a personal
injury attorney in favor of a far less lucrative career with the weight-loss

In fact, Kaufman is one of the busiest  leaders in town,
running 11 meetings weekly. Several are in the Beverly-La Brea area, where
Kaufman estimated that close to 70 percent of the members are Jewish, including
many who are Orthodox.

As the nation’s obese population has increased since the
1980s, even Jews in image-conscious Los Angeles have followed suit.

“In my clinical expereince, obesity is just as prevalent in
the Jewish community as in the general population,” said Dr. David Medway, a Los
Angeles physican specializing in obesity and weight control. “It’s a problem
that is pervasive throughout all economic groups: It’s an epidemic,” he said.

Up until the 1970s, the nation’s obese population had
remained fairly stable at about 13 percent. However, by the end of the 1980s,
nearly 25 percent of the population was obese, and the numbers have continued
to rise since then, according to National Center for Health Statistics. The
number of overweight children has nearly tripled.

It’s easy to see why. People are generally less physically
active today, yet live high-stress lives. Less inclined to cook at home, sales
of convenience or take-out meals have soared in recent years. In addition, U.S.
restaurants serve portions dramatically larger than those in Europe — often,
far more than an individual should eat at a sitting.

For ritually observant Jews, who celebrate the holidays and
Shabbat, managing their weight becomes even more of a challenge.

“People who eat OK during the week have a hard time keeping
it together on Shabbat,” Kaufman said. In fact, Kaufman’s Sunday meetings are
especially crowded with Orthodox Jews. One member confided that she likes
Sunday weigh-ins because they keep her from overindulging on Shabbat.

“I tell people to eat whatever they want but just know what
they’re eating and how it will affect their goals,” Kaufman said. “Don’t expect
to go out and eat a huge bowl of fettuccini Alfredo for dinner three nights in
a row and lose any weight.”

As Kaufman warms up before a meeting, Laura Weinman is often
behind the desk, accepting payments from members. As the Orthodox mother of two
young children, Weinman, who is also on the program, believes that many
observant Jews need to “change the way they think about food. We come together
as a community through food. You want to keep the traditions, but you also have
to ask yourself, ‘Do I really want to eat this?’ It can be tremendously hard.”

To keep her weight down, Weinman swears off all but homemade
challah on Shabbat and exercises at least three times a week. An avid cook, she
has also learned to retool her recipes, such as substituting applesauce for oil
and low-fat Toffuti products for cream cheese. “I find ways to make a beautiful
meal without sacrificing taste or volume,” she said. “There’s no recipe I can’t

But some people prefer other weight loss programs. Zvi
Hollander, rabbi of Young Israel of Venice, battled his weight and struggled to
control his diabetes for years. His exercise regimen of weekend mountain-biking
and hiking — he has climbed Mount Whitney twice — didn’t help.

Hollander finally found success through Compulsive Eaters
Anonymous-Honesty, Open-mindedness and Willingness (CEA-HOW). The program is
based on the 12-step philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous and promotes abstinence
–  not only from compulsive eating but also from foods considered particularly
addictive: white sugar and flour.

Since joining CEA-HOW 16 months ago, Hollander has lost 44
pounds and is still losing at a rate of a half-pound to a pound each week. His
goal is to lose another 20. However, Hollander is frustrated by what he sees as
the denial of many in the observant Jewish community about the problem of
obesity and its underlying issues.

“We eat for comfort, or because we’re angry, or other
reasons that have nothing to do with real hunger,” he observed. He pointed out
the irony of the Orthodox Union recently devoting a cover story in its magazine
to eating disorders among Jews.

“You know what they focused on? Anorexia and bulimia,”
Hollander said. “Those are serious concerns, but they affect only a fraction of
the number of people who are obese.”

The rabbi is clearly relieved to have found a solution that
works for him. “I can admit that I feel powerless over food,” he said. “Only
the Almighty can help me. And these 12-step ideas are also rooted in Torah.”

Before he joined the program, Hollander consulted with Rabbi
Abraham Twerski, a nationally known expert in issues of addiction. Twerski, the
author of dozens of books on psychology and self-help, including “The Thin You
Within You,” endorsed the 12-step philosophy wholeheartedly, because it helps
people recognize what Judaism calls the yetzer hara (the inclination to follow
one’s desires rather than one’s better instincts).

“To the extent that I let go, food no longer controls me,”
Hollander said. “God can take away the obsession. How we deal with food is a
true test of spirituality.”

Hollander is thrilled with his weight loss but is even
happier that as a result, he is now almost completely off insulin. A group
leader for CEA-HOW, he is trying to encourage many of his heavy friends and
colleagues to get serious about managing their own weight. Unfortunately, he
has met a lot of resistance.

“Just because obesity is a slow killer doesn’t mean it isn’t
a killer,” noted Hollander, who lost an overweight friend only in his mid-40s
to a heart attack last year. “People have no problem viewing alcohol as
addictive, but they don’t see food that way. I think we have desensitized
ourselves to viewing obesity as a disease.”

The Venice-based rabbi is proud that Ohr Eliyahu, the day
school where he teaches, has stopped dangling the incentives of pizza or ice
cream parties for children to learn or behave well. Now, they are rewarded with
outings or new books.

That’s the kind of change Kaufman would also like to see at
the day school where her children go, where ice cream parties are the norm to
celebrate in class. Kaufman is also disturbed when she sees very obese school
staff, who she said provide a poor role model for children.

Yet, given a lifetime of reinforcement of the idea of food
as reward, Kaufman admits that it’s hard even for her not to reward her own
children with food for good grades. But she is also determined to break the

Sometimes people have to experiment with many diet
philosophies before they find the solution that works best for them. For Michel
Mazouz, a Los Angeles internist in private practice, weight management became
an almost accidental specialty in his practice.

“I had noticed a trend in the medical literature,” Mazouz
recalled. “It seemed that no matter what the main medical problem was, the
physician also noted, ‘Patient also needs to lose weight,’ or ‘Patient needs to
control diabetes.’ It seemed that being overweight was causing many additional
health problems for more and more people.”

After an orthopedist colleague sent Mazouz a patient for
help with weight loss, both physicians realized that losing weight also cleared
up the patient’s knee problem. As word of his success with patients has grown,
Mazouz’s practice has grown from having almost no patients coming for weight
loss help to nearly one-third.

“There are 1,001 reasons why people gain weight,” Mazouz
explained. “It’s very time-consuming to treat these patients, because you have
to know who you’re dealing with. I explain the chain reactions of foods,
because the more they know the more they’ll do right.”

Mazouz developed a weight-loss program that he describes as
a “modified Atkins diet,” referring to the no-carbohydrate diet that is back in
vogue after 20 years of being ostracized by the medical practice. He allows
more carbohydrates than Atkins, although they are still limited. Mazouz
explains to his patients that quite simply, limiting carbohydrates promotes the
burning of fat.

After weight loss is achieved, Mazouz emphasizes maintenance
for his patients, which is, he acknowledges, the most important step.
“Ultimately,” he said, “I want my patients to become their own doctors.”

Mazouz, who is Orthodox, believes in the importance of
managing one’s weight not only for health, but also because “the body is like
the soul. Both are on loan from God. We need to take care of both.”

Yet, even those who have succeeded in taming the beast of
obesity know they must stay vigilant. As Weinman observed, “I’d love to have a
day when I didn’t have to think about food. Every day is a struggle.”