Push your brain and your body, says sports physician and author Jordan Metzl

When I was growing up in the 1960s in Skokie, Ill., reading was the main sport in my family. I’m pretty sure it was also the main sport in most families in my predominantly Jewish neighborhood: Neither my friends nor I ever heard the phrase “traveling soccer team” cross our parents’ lips.

Which is not to say we didn’t mosey over to nearby Devonshire Park to ice skate or knock some tennis balls around on the public courts. We did, but only after we finished our homework.

For Dr. Jordan Metzl, a Jewish kid growing up more than a decade later in Kansas City, Mo., it was quite different.

Metzl, a sports medicine physician at New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery who was listed last month in New York magazine’s annual index of best doctors, is the author of “The Athlete’s Book of Home Remedies: 1,001 Doctor-Approved Health Fixes & Injury Prevention Secrets for a Leaner, Fitter, More Athletic Body!” (Rodale Books, 2012).

“I grew up with a very Jewish upbringing inside the bigger bubble of mid-America,” Metzl says, but he’s proud that his parents “got it right: They got the balance of Jewish social consciousness, academics and sports,” even though they were up against an ethos in their kids’ Jewish day school that downplayed physical education.

His father, a pediatrician, and mother, a psychologist, “got in big trouble,” according to Metzl, when together with several families they surreptitiously painted lines one weekend on the day school’s parking lot to outline baseball and kickball fields.

Metzl, 45, who has finished 29 marathons and nine Ironman triathlons, is on a mission to get Jews—and, of course, his other patients—off their tushes. Like the ultimate handwringing Jewish mother, he worries about Jews “getting soft,” not like his young Asian patients, products of first-generation or immigrant families that push their kids both academically and on the sports field.

“Forty years ago, Tiger Mom would have been Matzah Ball Mom,” Metzl says.

He’s a big believer that Jews must not only push their brains but their bodies, and is fond of the Latin dictum mens sana in corpore sano, “a sound mind in a sound body.”

Although he loved athletics growing up in a family that treasured both, it was in medical school that Metzl discovered he could concentrate better when he was active.

“My performance as a doctor absolutely correlated to daily fitness,” he says.

As a medical resident in Boston, at a time when there were no restrictions on their hours, the hospital made an offer that employees who ran the Boston Marathon would get a day off from work. Metzl signed up, ran and ever since has been encouraging fitness as preventive medicine.

In his Hospital for Special Surgery office, Metzl says, he puts up an imaginary “no-kvetch zone” as he tries to entice patients to embrace more physical activity. (He acknowledges that sometimes his Jewish patients kvetch a little more than others.) One man complained that he couldn’t be more active because his legs ached from his knees to his ankles, and Metzl jokingly acknowledged that the patient had joints built for Talmudic study, but still had to strengthen the muscles around them.

The sports doc’s new book is dedicated to the “millions of athletes who wake up each morning at 5:30, with no fanfare, and drag themselves out of bed to keep fit.”

Trust me, that’s not me, yet I gobbled up each chapter, from “Tell Me Where It Hurts” to “How to Win at Everything”—sport-specific secrets for staying injury free.

In the section on “Iron Strength Workouts,” I appreciatively ingested “The Best Injury-Prevention Workout You’re Not Doing: Foam-Roll Exercises” (ouch—my word, not his).

Metzl calls the Iron Strength Workouts “simple (but intense!)”; his routines emphasize functional strength training based on a movement pattern rather than isolating an individual muscle in a bicep curl or leg extension. For those who want to try an Iron Strength Workout, there’s a free video on Runnersworld.com but beware: “KILLER. This workout kicked my butt,” reads one online comment that seems representative.

In case you’re more of a slacker than Metzl when it comes to working out (I’m no couch potato, but just watching Metzl’s video made parts of my body ache), I checked with my trainer at the Jewish Community Center of MetroWest in West Orange, N.J., Nimika Patel, to see if there are a lot of “me’s” in the Jewish athletic world or whether they are all Metzls.

It turns out that there is still room at the gym for those of us who aren’t triathloners or even weekend warriors.

Patel’s clients come in not necessarily to train for their next competition, but because of “osteoporosis, depression, fibromyalgia—you name it,” she says. “They all want to look good, of course, but there is always another reason they’re here.”

Like Metzl, Patel emphasizes what’s called functional fitness, which helps bodies get stronger at everyday tasks.

Steve Becker, vice president of health and wellness services at the JCC Association, the North American umbrella for the Jewish community center movement, says fitness facilities are moving away from cavernous rooms with one strength machine after another to offering more open space for people to train in a way that improves quality of life, using equipment like resistance bands and medicine balls.

“Being fit is about more than the one rep max or seeing how much you bench press,” Becker says. “It’s about lifting up grandchildren or schlepping luggage across the airport.”

Becker says that those in charge of fitness at JCCs, whose members include non-Jews as well as Jews, “are looking at what everyone else is looking for, the newest and best, but also something a little more.”

JCCs are featuring boot camp classes, yoga, pilates, small group training, zumba—you name it, he says—but also encouraging their members to look more broadly at wellness and healthy living.

Writing a book for athletes aside, Metzl, too, believes that you can be fit even if you’re not an Ironman enthusiast.

“If you’re 8 or 85, get off the couch,” he says. “The benefits kick in if you do half an hour of walking every day.”

Sure, do extreme sports if you like them, he says, but what’s most important is finding something you’ll enjoy, that you’ll keep doing.

Growing up, Metzl skied and backpacked with his parents and brothers. Today his mother gravitates toward ballroom dancing, his father toward biking.

“If there were a drug known to reduce blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, depression, diabetes, self-reported pain of arthritis, increase longevity by five years and improve quality of life by every metric, a doctor who didn’t give it to every patient would be committing malpractice,” says Metzl, with the intonation of one who has recited this speech many a time. “We have this drug, and that drug is exercise.”

(Elisa Spungen Bildner writes about health and wellness for JTA and is co-chair of the organization’s board of directors.)

Heart of Syria

In the constant argument that is Middle East politics it is very rare to achieve anything like universal agreement, but no one can begrudge what Hazem Chehabi did.

He quit. 

Since Chehabi resigned last week as honorary consul general of Syria in Southern California, he has received hundreds of e-mails and phone calls.

All positive.

For 18 years, Chehabi, an oncological radiologist in Newport Beach, has volunteered to act as Syria’s consul general here. His office handled travel documents and birth, marriage and death certificates for the thousands of expatriate Syrians living in the Western states.

When the Arab Spring started to rain down on the regime of Bashar Assad, activists in Orange County began to call on Chehabi to resign. They lodged complaints with the University of California, Irvine, whose UC Irvine Foundation board of trustees Chehabi chairs.

Chehabi, on principle, refused to step down. He believed he was serving the community he cared about — not the Assad regime — providing help that people needed to get on with their lives.

Then came Houla. On May 25, government-backed militiamen attacked the Syrian village and killed 108 people, of whom 49 were children. The victims were shot at close range, beaten or stabbed. Assad has denied his regime’s involvement, but no one, least of all the honorary consul general to Southern California, believes him.

I’ve known Hazem Chehabi for years. He is a soft-spoken, private man, not given to dramatics or bluster. As the situation in Syria deteriorated, he wrestled with — agonized over — how to continue to serve the local Syrian community without appearing to support the Assad regime. 

One of Chehabi’s major concerns, which he kept out of the public debate, was for his extended family and friends in Syria; he was deeply worried about what might happen to them if he stepped down.

But after Houla, there was no more doubt.

“I never thought of myself as a Syrian official,” he told me by phone on Monday. “There was always a distinction in my mind. I was a physician first, volunteering to perform a service for my fellow Syrians. But it got to the point that if there were any hint that what I did had anything to do with this regime, I couldn’t perform these duties.”

Chehabi doesn’t believe for a second Assad’s denial of involvement or responsibility for what happened in Houla.

“Everything I’ve heard suggests these people had ties to the government,” he said. “The government will say otherwise, and I expect them to say otherwise. There’s a pattern to terrorize the civilian population. It’s nothing less than ethnic cleansing.”

Chehabi’s father knew Bashar Assad’s father, Hafez, and Chehabi himself has known the son for years; they’ve met on several occasions. The last time Chehabi was in Syria, at the start of the protests and crackdown there, he tried to meet with Bashir Assad, but, for the first time, his request was denied.

“At the time he took power, we had high hopes,” Chehabi said of Assad. “He was young, Western-educated, open-minded. I am very disappointed by how things turned out.”

I asked Chehabi if he still wasn’t concerned about how his resigning in protest would endanger his friends and family in Syria.

“I’ve thought about this for a long time,” he said. “I decided these people are not going to be any more precious to me than the average citizen who is suffering day in and day out. I had to do what I felt was moral. I’m concerned about my family, of course, but I’m also concerned about the average citizen suffering at the hands of this killing machine.”

When I asked whether Chehabi has heard a reaction to his resignation from his family in Syria, he was circumspect. “I have to be careful,” he said. “I’ve heard indirectly. The response was overwhelmingly positive.”

Now, Chehabi’s foremost concern is for Syria’s future.

He remains opposed to military intervention.

“It will make things worse,” he said. “It will lead to more bloodshed and flat-out civil war.”

Writing in this month’s Foreign Policy, the analyst Anne-Marie Slaughter suggests the United States take the lead in creating “No Kill Zones” where Syrian citizens can live free of government shelling and attacks and even opposition violence. U.S. and other troops would enforce these NKZs with armed drones and aircraft. 

“I would like to think there’s a way to create these without weapons,” Chehabi said. “I’d like to think we can appeal to the conscience of the regime that at stake is the future of the country. If this continues, the Syria we know will cease to exist,  and what will emerge are mini states along sectarian lines.”

Chehabi now tells people requesting official documents to turn to the Syrian embassy in Washington, D.C., or the consulate in Detroit — a major inconvenience. 

“It’s too bad,” he said. “The country is bigger than the regime; it’s bigger than the government. You should be able to criticize the leader without being seen as criticizing the country.”

That freedom, of course, is what much of the struggle of the Arab Spring is about. And in Syria, it is far from over.

After Houla, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued yet more rote, ineffective condemnations.

Some people wonder what took Chehabi so long to act. I don’t. I wonder what’s taking our leaders so long.

Follow Rob Eshman on Twitter at @Foodaism.



Fine Thing for Feinstein

Rabbi Morley Feinstein, senior rabbi of University Synagogue in Brentwood, and Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, at the General Assembly (GA) of the United Jewish Communities. Feinstein, executive committee member of the Board of Rabbis, received the Rabbinic Award of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

The Stem Cell Circuit

For one week in late January, Hadassah Southern California hosted Benjamin Reubinoff, senior physician with the obstetrics/gynecology department and director of the Hadassah Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research Center at the Goldyne Savad Institute of Gene Therapy, Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem.

Recently, in what is considered to be a major medical breakthrough, Reubinoff and his research team succeeded in showing that human embryonic stem cells can improve the functioning of a laboratory rat with Parkinson’s disease. This is the first time that the potential ability of transplanted human embryonic stem cells has been demonstrated in an animal model with Parkinson’s disease.

It was a whirlwind week for Reubinoff: On Jan. 23, he was the keynote speaker at the “Healthy Women, Healthy Lives” Conference at the Long Beach Jewish Community Center; on Jan. 24, he spoke at the Women of Distinction Dinner at Le Vallauris; on Jan. 25, 160 women turned up to hear him speak at a health seminar at the Annenberg Center at the Eisenhower Medical Center; and later that night he spoke at San Diego’s Chai Society event at the Burham Institute. Two days later, Reubinoff gave a lecture to the faculty and deans at UC Santa Barbara, and last, but not least, he spoke in Encino at the Northern Area Chai Society event.

A Visit from The Rebbe

Emek Hebrew Academy Teichman Family Torah Center had some very holy guests recently. On Feb. 7, Rabbi Zvi Elimelech Halberstam, the Sanz-Klausenberg Rebbe, visited the school. Halberstam is one of the most renowned Chasidic leaders alive today.

Sol Teichman, the school’s board chair, welcomed Halberstam to Emek. Teichman has a very personal connection to the Rebbe, as he survived the Holocaust with Halberstam’s father, the late Grand Rabbi Yekusiel Yehuda Halberstam, who founded Kiryat Sanz in Netanya, Israel.

On Feb. 6, an audience of 200 gathered at the school to hear Torah scholar Rabbi Yissocher Frand speak about “Gevurah – Strength, Legacy from the Past, Hope for the Future.”

In Memory of Hindy

One year ago, on Feb. 10, 2004, Hindy Cohen, a student at Bais Yaakov of Los Angeles, died at the age of 17. She was known for her staunch faith and for the joy she felt in life.

Since her death, her parents, Baruch and Adina Cohen, have set up the Hindy Cohen Memorial Fund at Bais Yaakov. In the short time since its inception, the fund has dedicated the Bais Yaakov Yoman Calendar, which is given out to every student. It has also set up an annual award given to a Bais Yaakov graduating senior who has shown exemplary character traits. The fund also sponsored this year’s Halleli Song and Dance Festival, dedicated the Yom Iyun Day of Study at Bais Yaakov, and set up a weekly mussar (self-improvement from Jewish texts) class for seniors.

On Feb. 13, in connection with Hindy Cohen’s first yahrzeit, the Hindy Cohen Memorial Fund dedicated “Hindy’s Sefer Torah.” The Torah procession began at noon at the shul that Hindy Cohen prayed in for most of her life, Congregation Bais Yehuda on La Brea Boulevard. Hindy’s parents and the rest of the crowd then escorted the Torah to its new home at Bais Yaakov on Beverly Boulevard.

A Dance for Barbara

On Nov. 6, United Hostesses’ Charity held its 62nd annual dinner dance at the Regent Beverly Wilshire. The event honored Barbara Factor Bentley, the immediate past chair of the Board of the Directors at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and featured a performance by singer/pianist Michael Feinstein.

Baby Love

One sure way to stop those winter blues is to help people less fortunate than yourself. In January, the American Jewish Congress sent several packages of handmade baby clothing, blankets and teddy bears to needy families in Israel. Each item sent was lovingly crafted by Stitches from the Heart, a Santa Monica-based organization whose volunteers knit garments and toys from donated yarn, which are then distributed to needy people.

In Israel, Yad Letinok, a Jerusalem-based charity that helps needy families with young children, distributed the items.