Exercises for boomers (and why they’re so important)


A year and a half ago, Elliott Haimoff could barely walk down the street without losing his breath. He weighed 285 pounds and, as a busy documentary filmmaker whose job involves lots of travel and sedentary editing work, he rarely took time to exercise or to think about the food he ate.

“I was just so out of control and my eating habits were poor and I wasn’t exercising regularly,” said Haimoff, 60, who lives in Beverly Hills and attends Congregation Mogen David, a Modern Orthodox congregation on West Pico Boulevard. “I just got to a point where enough was enough. … I said, ‘This is it. I’m going to make my last stand.’ ”

So Haimoff began working with a personal trainer, Betsy Mendel, who advised him on ways to improve his diet and started him on an exercise routine. He cut out fried foods, wheat and processed sugar (no more fried chicken, pasta or dessert). He also began working out about three times a week, combining cardiovascular activity — walking or hiking — and weight-bearing exercises using resistance bands and kettle bells. 

Today, Haimoff is 90 pounds lighter and feels several decades younger, too. Instead of just walking to the end of the street, he now enjoys hiking for several miles through the Santa Monica Mountains.

“I feel like I’m 30 again, I just have all this energy, I’m raring to go,” he said. “It’s just made a tremendous difference in my life. I feel like a different person. I definitely think I’ve put some time back on the clock.”

Elliott Haimoff, 60, has lost 90 pounds since changing his diet and starting on an exercise routine. Photo courtesy of Elliott Haimoff

Eating well and exercising are important at all stages of life. But for people 50 and older, diet and exercise become less about looking good and more about staying healthy and improving quality of life, according to Mendel, a Santa Monica personal trainer and author of “Move a Muscle, Change a Mood: The Transformative Power of Exercising, Eating Healthy & Thinking Positive.” 

Mendel, who attends Shabbat services at Nashuva, a Jewish spiritual community based in Brentwood, said exercise after 50 can help counteract some of the negative aspects of aging, such as decreased strength, reduced flexibility, balance problems and poor posture. Exercise also reduces the risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some types of cancer, and it increases your chances of living longer. Boomers shouldn’t expect to do the same intensity of exercise as they did in their 20s and 30s, but they can still make dramatic improvements to their health, Mendel said. 

“The endorphins alone — the feeling you get when you work out — you sleep better, eat healthier, are less stressed,” she said. “The goal of exercise after 50 is health and well-being; it’s not physical prowess.”

To get the most from your fitness routine, Mendel recommends incorporating exercises that target five areas: cardiovascular health, strength, flexibility, balance and core strength. Always consult your doctor before beginning a new exercise regime, she said, but here are some basic tips to get you started.

Cardiovascular health

Get moving. Cardiovascular exercise can be anything that gets your heart pumping: bicycling, hiking, walking briskly, swimming. Running is not recommended unless you’ve been a runner all of your life, Mendel said. Cardiovascular exercise reduces your risk of heart disease and diabetes, lifts your mood and can help with weight loss.

Mendel recommends 30 minutes a day, five to seven days a week, but if you can manage only two days a week, begin with that. “Anything is better than nothing,” she said. 

Strength 

You don’t need fancy equipment or a plush gym membership to work out your muscles. Strength training exercises can be performed using simple items available in sports or department stores, such as dumbbells and resistance bands. You also can use your own body weight. 

Strength training after 50 isn’t about gaining big muscles. Instead, it’s about building muscle mass and strengthening your muscles so that you can continue to do the things you do every day like climbing stairs, carrying groceries and picking up your grandchildren. Building muscle also helps improve posture and increase metabolism, which slows as you age, Mendel said.

She recommends strength training three days a week for at least 30 minutes. Exercises should target both the upper and lower body. For the upper body, she recommends bicep curls, tricep extensions, lateral raises, rowing and pushups. Pushups can be done against a wall if you have trouble doing them on the floor.

For the lower body, Mendel recommends squats and lunges. If you use weights, she recommends women start with 3- to 5-pound weights, and men with 5 to 10 pounds.

Guidelines for all of these exercises can be found online, in many exercise books or by consulting a personal trainer.

Flexibility 

Call it flexibility training or stretching. Like strength training, stretching will help with regular daily activities, such as getting in and out of a car or bending down to pick something off the floor.

“If you haven’t been exercising, you definitely get stiffer as you get older,” Mendel said. “Better flexibility reduces the risk of back pain and muscle pulls. … It just makes you feel more limber.”

A good stretching routine could include arm circles, neck rolls, touching your toes (you can do this while sitting on the floor), calf raises against the wall, hamstring and quad stretches, and side stretches. Mendel recommends stretching for five to 10 minutes every day.

Balance 

Improving balance is key to preventing one of the biggest problems people face as they age: falling. Our sense of balance decreases as we get older. In fact, more than a third of adults ages 65 and older fall each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Balance exercises can help prevent this problem.

Mendel recommends spending about two to three minutes each day working on balance. This could be standing on one leg while holding onto the wall and then letting go of the wall. Or you could stand on your tiptoes and hold for a few seconds. Yoga poses such as the tree pose also are good for balance, Mendel said. 

Core strength

Working your core means strengthening your abdominal and back muscles and the muscles around your pelvis. Strong core muscles make it easier to do many daily physical activities such as lifting. It also can prevent back pain and help with balance.

Core exercises recommended by Mendel include: crunches, reverse crunches, planks and bicycle exercises on the floor in which you touch your elbows to your knees in a cycling motion. Consult a trainer or exercise book for more guidance on how to do these exercises.

Mendel suggests incorporating core exercise into your workout regime five to seven days a week. Most importantly, whatever exercise you choose, make sure you do it and stay consistent, Mendel concluded. 

“Basically, my philosophy for fitness is really simple: It’s get up and get out and get moving. Anything is better than nothing,” she said.

“Get off your butt.”

A Prayer for Victims of Hurricane Katrina


Are You watching, God?

Have You seen the innocent swept away?

Are You listening, God?

Have You heard their cries?

Be with them, God.

Be their strength and their comfort.

Let them know You are near.

Work through us, God.

Teach us to be Your messengers on earth.

Wake us up, God,

Show us how to help.

Use us, God, shine through us,

Inspire us to rebuild the ruins.

Open our hearts so we can comfort the mourning.

Open our arms so we can extend our hands to those in need.

Shake us out of our complacency, God.

Be our guide,

Transform our helplessness into action,

Our generous intentions into charity,

Turn the prayers of our souls into acts of kindness and compassion.

Amen.

Rabbi Naomi Levy is spiritual leader of Nashuva (www.nashuva.com). She is the author of “Talking to God: Personal Prayers for Times of Joy, Sadness, Struggle, and Celebration” (Doubleday, 2002)

 

Does Autism Offer Special Gifts?


“Identify yourself,” Seth says when meeting someone new. “Oh, my deepest apologies,” he’ll tell you, his curled hand over his heart as he delivers a deep bow, if he thinks he has made some kind of error.

Sometimes his face comes very close to yours to get your attention, telling you something that just cannot wait. “I am Sethman, not Sethy,” he reminds us.

“I am an adult. Live long and prosper,” he continues, using a Spock phrase right out of “Star Trek,” talking out loud using the priestly hand gesture, arm outstretched, reminding himself that his favorite TV characters Spock and Captain Kirk are Jewish. In fact, he tells those around him that they are Jewish.

We call his phrases “Seth-isms.”

It was not that many years ago that if you told someone your child had autism they would tell you their child is artistic, too. No kidding! And what about those well-meaning people who would tell you how God chose your home to place this special soul, knowing that you would love and cherish him or her.

How could we be so lucky?

Today we would submit that Seth is probably the best thing that has ever happened to us … or one of the best things anyway. We never have to worry about him ripping off hubcaps. A stickler for following rules, often profoundly shy (unless he knows you) he runs for the hills if he hears foul language on television. But way back when … make no mistake about it; those early years were a real challenge.

The Seth of today is almost always a joy for us. But he’s still so very different, unique.

Seth has often been told he looks like Ben Affleck and Keanu Reeves. That has prompted him to declare that he wants to be an actor. After all, since Ben Affleck and Keanu Reeves are actors, then he should be one, too. That’s logical, isn’t it?

Twice a week he leaves the gates of his transitional program at The Help Group and strolls over to Valley College where he takes an acting class — his favorite thing to do. Popular in his class, he is often used as a straight man. And since Seth can quickly memorize lines and seems to have stage presence, why not become an actor? Stranger things have happened, maybe.

At home you will often see him playing soundtracks from movies while seemingly conducting, using his index fingers for a conductor’s baton.

“I love conducting,” he’ll tell you excitedly.

He’ll pantomime words used by comedians while staring into the mirror, all the time conducting.

Do-gooders might tell you that having a special-needs child is like taking a vacation to Hawaii and winding up in Alaska. Hogwash! Taking a vacation to Hawaii and winding up on Mars is more like it — even when you end up treasuring the results.

As we faced those challenges we gained strength from my research into the life of Albert Einstein, a very unusual human being. In 1988, I began to look into his life, having long ago heard about his quirks and thinking what oddities genius reveals. What if Einstein was like this, too? After all, Einstein’s parents had been very worried about him when he was a baby. His head was unusually large (something being studied today as many children with autism are born with unusually large heads). His grandparents thought he was a dolt. He was a late talker, did poorly in school, was a loner, solitary, suffered from major tantrums, had no friends and didn’t like being in crowds.

What if Einstein had some form of autism? After two years of research with Dr. Edward Ritvo, a highly respected child psychiatrist at UCLA who is now retired, I had come to believe Einstein did have autism. Einstein was unusual his entire life. I spoke about Einstein at autism conventions and wrote about him in my last book. If Einstein did have autism and could do what he did in spite of his autism, or, perhaps because of it, what did this mean for others diagnosed with it?

The number of people now diagnosed with autism is staggering, especially in light of the fact that, not long ago, few had even heard the word. About 1.77 million people in the United States or one out of every 33 boys (boys are diagnosed approximately four times more often than girls) or 166 people per 10,000 have autism.

What was a very rare syndrome in the 1960s is pervasive today. And the numbers keep rising.

Have you heard of Sue Rubin?

Sue is a nonverbal young woman in her mid-20s who has autism. Sue, once thought to be “severely retarded,” is nothing of the kind. Through something called Facilitated Communication, a somewhat controversial form of therapy, it was discovered that Sue was brilliant in mathematics. Sue received a hefty scholarship for college and wrote a screenplay in 2004 titled “Autism Is a World.”

What about Ben Golden?

He is a young man in his mid-30s, nonverbal and autistic. He and his family moved to Israel several years ago. Like Sue, Ben also communicates using Facilitated Communication. That is how his family came to understand just how much their son really knew. Today, people come long distances to visit with Ben. He tells them about themselves and gives them guidance. Those who visit with Ben are frequently in awe. He seems to know things about those who come to see him. Psychic? Who knows. But apparently he’s quite gifted, and his essays can be found on the Internet.

Ben, Sue, Seth — a few names of some unique special-needs people. In the grand scheme of things, maybe it is those with special needs and differences who have the answers. Wouldn’t that be something!

Illana Katz, a former staff writer for Jewish Heritage, has written six books, two of which focus on autism.

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American Jewry By Numbers


The National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) 2000-01, dubbed “Strength, Challenge and Diversity,” offers key findings on demographics, intermarriage, Jewish “connections” — that is, communal behavioral trends — and such “special” topics as the elderly, immigration and poverty.

Among the study’s key findings:

Demographics

  • There are 5.2 million Jews in the United States, down from 5.5 million counted in the 1990 NJPS. Those Jews live in 2.9 million homes, with a total of 6.7 million people. So in Jewish households, two out of every nine people are not Jewish.
  • Jews are older, on average, than the American population as a whole. The median age for Jews is 42, compared to age 35 for Americans generally. So while 14 percent of Americans are age 9 or younger, only 10 percent of Jews are. And 23 percent of Jews are over age 60, compared to 16 percent of Americans as a whole.
  • A majority of Jews — 57 percent — are married, but they tend to marry later in life than other Americans. For instance, while 59 percent of American men in the 25-34 age bracket are married, only 48 percent of Jewish men are. Among women in that age bracket, 64 percent of Jews are married, compared to 70 percent of Americans generally.
  • Jewish women’s fertility rates are lower than most Americans. Ninety percent of Jewish women ages 18-24 and 70 percent of those 25-29 do not have children, compared to 70 percent and 44 percent of U.S. women in those age groups. Jewish women had 1.86 children on average overall, versus 1.93 children by all U.S. women.
  • Forty-three percent of Jews live in the Northeast, 23 percent in the South, 22 percent in the West and 13 percent in the Midwest. But while 77 percent of Jews born in the West still live there, only 61 percent of Jews born in the Northeast and just half of those born in the Midwest do, signaling a continued migration westward.
  • That migration was offset by immigration to the Northeast, where nearly 60 percent of Jews from the former Soviet Union live.
  • Jews are more affluent than Americans generally. More than one-third of Jewish households report an annual income of $75,000 or higher, compared to just 18 percent of U.S. households. The median Jewish household income is $54,000, compared to $42,000 for Americans generally.
  • Only 61 percent of all Jews are currently working, compared to 65 percent of all Americans, reflecting the higher median age of Jews.

Intermarriage

  • Among all married Jews today, 31 percent are married to non-Jews. The intermarriage rate, which had been rising since 1970s, leveled off in the late 1980s and early 1990s to about 43 percent. Since then, it has climbed again slightly, with 47 percent of Jews who wed since 1996 choosing non-Jewish spouses.
  • Intermarriage runs highest among the young, with 41 percent of Jews under 35 who marry choosing non-Jewish spouses. By comparison, only 20 percent of married Jews over 55 have non-Jewish spouses.
  • The intermarriage rate is higher among men than women — 33 percent, compared to 29 percent.
  • The greater one’s Jewish education, the less likely one is to intermarry. Forty-three percent of those who lacked any Jewish education intermarried, compared to 29 percent among those who had one day per week of Jewish education. The rate dropped to 23 percent for those who had part-time Jewish education, and to 7 percent among those who attended Jewish day school or yeshiva.
  • Mirroring some earlier studies, NJPS also showed that intermarriage breeds intermarriage, with the children of intermarried couples three times more likely to intermarry. Intermarriage was 22 percent among those with two Jewish parents, versus 74 percent of those with just one Jewish parent.
  • Children of intermarried couples raised in a Jewish household were less likely to intermarry, though a majority still did. Nearly 60 percent of children raised Jewish by an interfaith couple intermarried, compared to 86 percent who were not raised as Jews. But only 33 percent of intermarried households raise their children as Jews, compared to 96 percent of homes with two Jewish parents.
  • Those who intermarry may experience alienation from the Jewish community. Just 24 percent of the intermarried say they have close Jewish friends, compared to 76 percent of those in all-Jewish marriages.

Jewish Connectivity

  • Among all Jews, 52 percent have close Jewish friends, 77 percent attend or hold Passover seders, 72 percent light Chanukah candles, 35 percent have visited Israel, 63 percent are “emotionally attached” to the Jewish State and 41 percent have contributed to a Jewish cause outside of the federation system.
  • NJPS further identified 4.3 million Jews, or 80 percent of the total Jewish population, as more “Jewishly connected” than others. These Jews replied to a more detailed NJPS survey, by first saying they either had at least one Jewish parent; were raised as Jews; considered themselves Jewish culturally, ethnically or nationalistically; or practiced no other religion. Those who practiced a non-monotheistic religion, such as Zen Buddhism, but still considered themselves Jews and practiced some “residual” Jewish activity were also included, said Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz, the NJPS research director.

Of the remaining Jews in the overall population:

  • 800,000 met all those criteria but did not consider themselves to be Jews. The previous 1990 survey cast a wider net and counted these people as Jews in measuring rates such as intermarriage and other Jewish connections.
  • Another 100,000 Jews were estimated to exist, living largely in senior-citizen homes, prisons or as part of the U.S. military — the same number used in the 1990 study.

Of the more Jewishly active 4.3 million:

  • Forty-six percent said they belong to a synagogue, while 27 percent said they attend a Jewish religious service at least once per month.
  • Of those who said they were synagogue members, 39 percent identified as Reform Jews, 33 percent as Conservative, 21 percent as Orthodox, 3 percent as Reconstructionist and 4 percent as “other,” such as Sephardic.
  • Fifty-nine percent said they fast on Yom Kippur — meaning four in 10 Jews do not.
  • Twenty-eight percent said they light Shabbat candles, while 21 percent said they keep kosher at home.
  • Twenty-one percent said they belong to a Jewish community center, while 28 percent said they belong to another Jewish organization.
  • A fifth of all Jews said they have visited Israel two or more times, and 45 percent said they have Israeli relatives or friends.
  • Fifty-two percent said being Jewish is very important.
  • Thirty percent of these Jews said they contributed to a Jewish federation.
  • Sixty-five percent said they read a Jewish newspaper or magazine; 55 percent read books on Jewish topics; 45 percent listen to Jewish tapes, compact disks or records; and 39 percent use the Internet for Jewish purposes.
  • Nearly one-quarter said they attend Jewish education classes.

Education

Secular and Jewish education plays a key role among American Jews.

  • Jews are highly educated compared to the population generally, with 55 percent having earned a college degree, compared to 29 percent of all Americans, and 25 percent of Jews holding graduate degrees, compared to 6 percent of the general population.
  • Seventy-three percent of the more “connected” Jews received some kind of formal Jewish education growing up, including 79 percent of those between age 6 and 17 at the time of the survey.
  • Twelve percent of the more “connected” subset attended a Jewish day school or yeshiva growing up, 25 percent had one day per week of Jewish education and 24 percent went to a Jewish school part time. In fact, NJPS found a dramatic rise in Jewish day school and yeshiva education, with 29 percent of those between the ages of 6 and 17 — and 23 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds — saying they have attended day school or yeshiva. By comparison, only 12 percent of 35- to 44-year-olds, and 10 percent of older Jews, say they had a day school education.
  • As for more informal Jewish schooling, 23 percent of children ages 3 to 17 attended a Jewish day camp in the year before the survey was taken, between August 2000 and 2001; 19 percent of those aged 8 to 17 went to a Jewish sleepover camp in the previous year; and 46 percent of those aged 12 to 17 participated in Jewish activities or organized youth groups in that period.
  • Among current college and graduate students, 41 percent reported taking a Jewish studies course, while only 11 percent of those 55 and older did so; 28 percent of those between 35 and 54 attended such courses; and 37 percent of those under age 35 took a college-level Jewish studies class.

The Elderly, the Poor and Immigrants

  • Nearly one-fifth of the total Jewish population is considered elderly (65 and older), with 9 percent age 75 or older. Fifty-four percent of the elderly are women.
  • One third of elderly Jews live alone, with 67 percent being widows or widowers. More than one-third report their health is poor or fair, three times the rate of those under 65.

Because the 1990 NJPS did not track poverty levels, the study could not spot any trends. It did, however, find that:

  • Nine percent of the Jewish elderly live in households below the federally defined poverty line; 18 percent of the elderly live in households with incomes of less than $15,000; and 43 percent of the elderly claim total assets of $250,000 or more.
  • Nearly 8 percent of all American Jews immigrated to the United States since 1980, amounting to 335,000 people. Of these, 227,000 — or slightly more than two-thirds — came from the former Soviet Union. The remaining immigrants came from 30 other countries, with those from Canada, Iran and Israel accounting for more than half of those 109,000.
  • Ninety-one percent of immigrants from the FSU were married to other Jews.

The study will be available at “>www.jewishdatabank.com.

The Price We Pay


Jacob spent 20 long years in the home of his father-in-law, Laban, before he could return to the land of Canaan, his home and homeland.

He had been threatened, cheated, tricked, attacked, injured and orphaned over the course of those years. Certainly, he was hoping to settle down and enjoy the rest of his years in peace. Unfortunately, that was not to be the case. Jacob’s daughter, Dina, was spotted by Shechem, the prince of the land. He desired her, abducted her, raped her and then, in an odd twist, his aggression turned soft and he sought to make her his wife.

Shechem and Chamor, his father, approached Jacob and preposterously asked for his permission to marry Dina. It could be the start of a new relationship between the locals and Jacob’s family, they reasoned. Sons and daughters would intermarry, they could do business together; it was a win-win partnership for everyone. Jacob and his sons listened incredulously as these men painted such a rosy picture, as if they would happily agree to an alliance with those who perpetrated such an ugly and violent act against their daughter and sister.

Unfortunately, Jacob’s family had the weaker stance in these negotiations. Dina was still Shechem’s prisoner, and their one objective was to bring her home safely. Instead of agreeing to or rejecting the proposition, the brothers devised a plan, and attached an unrealistic condition to the marriage; all of the men in the city of Shechem must be circumcised before they would allow Dina, or any of their daughters, to intermarry. If the men refused, the brothers could take Dina back and be released from any obligation to have dealings with these repulsive people. It was a clever plan, but it backfired. The brothers underestimated the power and persuasion that Shechem had over his people, and all of the males underwent circumcision.

What to do? It seemed that the brothers had backed themselves into a corner. Shimon and Levi, two of Dina’s brothers, decided, independently, to take matters into their own hands. On the third day following the circumcision, when the men were weak and defenseless, they entered the town wielding swords. They killed all of the males, including Shechem and Chamor, took spoils and captives, and fulfilled their main objective, rescuing their sister and bringing her home.

They were successful in their quest, but were they justified? Were they allowed to kill so many people, to risk their own lives, to act with deceit? Their father seemed to think not. Jacob rebukes them sharply, both at the time that they act, and years later at the end of his life. He fears the repercussions of the inhabitants of the land, curses the anger of his sons and disassociates himself from their partnership.

But they have a defense. They have a response to their father’s objection: "Hach’zonah ya’aseh et achoteinu. (Should he treat our sister like a harlot?") Shimon and Levi felt that Shechem acted so brutally against Dina because she was the daughter of Jacob, a Jewish girl. Jews are easy targets because no one stands up to protest when a Jew is attacked. Shechem feared no punishment, no backlash, no consequence to his actions, and, therefore, he was free to do to Dina whatever he pleased. But Shimon and Levi stood up to say an emphatic no. Jewish blood is not hefker (ownerless). It is not free for the taking. We can and will use the full force of our strength to defend the lives and honor of our own, even if everyone else turns a blind eye to the injustices carried out against us.

Is this not the story of our past and our present? Who stood up to defend those who lost their lives in the Crusades? In the Inquisition? In the pogroms? In the Holocaust? Atrocity after atrocity befalls our people, and why? Because the world does not cry over spilled Jewish blood. Thank God for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) who have, time and again, been blessed with the strength of Shimon and Levi, and showed the world that Jewish blood is accountable. As a nation, we can and will defend the lives of our citizens, and even if the world stands idly by while aggression is unleashed against us, it won’t go unpunished.

For the past two years, daily and deadly attacks have been unleashed against the citizens of Israel, yet Israel gets condemned for exercising her right of self-defense. Women and children are targeted and killed in their cars, their restaurants, their own homes — and the world seems to side with the perpetrators, not the victims. Were Shimon and Levi justified in wiping out the city of Shechem? Is the IDF justified in rooting out terrorists? Not everyone thinks so. The United Nations, the European Union and some in our own American government don’t support the drastic measures Israel must sometimes take to defend her citizens, even her very existence. But despite the protest and the bad press, it is hard to condemn success and security. There is a price to pay for relying on others for help, and there is a price to pay for taking care of ourselves. Shimon and Levi force us to think about which is a greater price to pay.

Steven Weil is senior rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills.

The Light of God


Recently I had an opportunity to lead some adults through a group-dynamic exercise. They sat in clusters of five or six, and each person identified a strength of each of the other participants. There were some in the group who knew each other very well, others who were less familiar with one another. The result was actually quite remarkable. After initial discomfort at being asked to look someone in the eyes and articulate one of their strengths, the participants positively glowed from the opportunity to share their remarks. Their faces beamed with delight. Of course, those hearing their strengths enumerated (after their initial discomfort of being the focus of attention) appreciated the process. What was revealing for me was the joy that the speakers experienced.

This encounter was analogous to a stunning, powerful and beautiful moment we read about in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa. Moses pleads with God, "Oh, let me behold Your glory!" God responds, "I will make all My goodness pass before you … as My presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen."

Imagine what it might have felt like for Moses, standing inside a cold, confining, pitch-black cavern, not knowing when light would reappear. Fear? Uncertainty? A sense of loneliness, perhaps? Then God removes His hand. In a flash, Moses is able to peer outside into the light and see God’s back as He passes by the rock. Moses is greeted by an overpowering brightness, an awesome awareness of God’s presence, a transformational, inspirational moment of sight and insight.

Moses is only allowed to see God’s back, yet this limited view gives him a glimpse of God’s goodness. Moses has encountered God and has seen goodness. When we experience goodness in the world, we encounter God.

We cannot see nor can we completely comprehend or apprehend God. We can, however, recognize the places and moments that God’s presence has been in the world. We can, like Moses, see God’s goodness. One way we can have a glimpse of God is when we experience acts of chesed (kindness).

The goodness of others reflects God’s image. These acts bring God’s light into the world. Yet, there is more to this process: when you bring goodness into the world, it is as if you are shining God’s light directly onto another person and then it shines back on you.

We can stay within ourselves, closed up in isolated, dark, inward- focused places, as if shut up in a cleft in rock. Or we can move past our insulation and apprehension and welcome the light. We can look into the faces of others and be critical and closed to them, or we can see the image and light of God reflected in their essence. We can do good, and we can acknowledge it in others: a simple "hello" and "thanks for your help" at the supermarket, an expression of gratitude to a coworker going an extra step, a remark of appreciation to someone even if we are frustrated with them. When we do this, we brighten their lives. These acts of kindness not only bring light to the receiver, but they reflect joy back on to us.

When we recognize the strengths, the potential, the gifts that others give to the world and us, we can see a glimpse of God in them. When the adults in the small groups were given the opportunity to articulate the goodness of others, they were joyous. That joy is the spark of light of God’s presence. Let it glow.

Red String


I wear a piece of red string around my right wrist, a talisman for healing.

Since receiving a diagnosis of lung cancer a year ago, my life has continued in a relatively "normal" vein, recognizable to secular Jewish Westerners like myself. I meet with the best oncologists and take advantage of the extraordinary medical advances of our day.

But when Rabbi Sheryl Lewart of Kehillat Israel offered me a length of string, I did not resist. I became excited, my heart racing. As a patient, I was entering a world where logic was obscure. More would be revealed.

As it turned out, Lewart left the string with her colleague, Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, when she visited Israel, where she promised to put prayers for my health in the Western Wall. One Shabbat, Reuben took the length of string and tied it on me, making a gentle series of knots. "There," he pronounced with a sweet smile, when the wristlet was neat. "Go."

One day about a month ago, I saw another woman with a red string bracelet. I chased her down the hall.

"Your string," I muttered.

"What of it," she said. She did not open up, and my search for a sister sufferer ended.

I have been asked to speak next weekend on the topic, "The Spiritual Challenge of Cancer," at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. I hope to explore not only this specific affliction, but also the relationship between disease and morality, health and faith — the challenge of living as experienced by most of us, the well and the ill. It is the challenge of the red string.

Though our tradition decries it, Jews are no strangers to magic. Like advocates of feng shui, American tribal healing or any superstitious band of cult followers, in times of pain we go occult, putting faith in colors, mascots, stars — silent prayers for survival. In the end, my doctors would be happy if magic worked, as would I.

I do draw the line. On the Web, recently, I came across an entire Jewish site devoted to superficial guidance that illness is a distortion of "energy fields." Even my acupuncturist knows better. He would not offer me a piece of blind Torah text and claim that the healing power of Hebrew letters would clear the body.

Yet, the red string does me some good, or else I wouldn’t wear it. When I’m washing dishes, the warm water slips over the thread, quickening my pulse. I am reminded, in an intimate way, that my body is leading me toward healing.

Somehow, the simple decision to keep my kitchen clean is connected with the idea of God. God is the action that transports me from cause to effect, from waiting for others to take care of me to willingness to do my part.

It transforms me from a cancer victim, passive recipient of pathetic wishful thinking, to a person in service, engaged in my own salvation.

Salvation is at the heart of the matter. The ill and the well alike have limited time. We inevitably, constantly, ask ourselves, what is it we are doing with what we have left, with the life we have been granted?

As it turns out, the red string comes from the Torah discussion of leprosy, a topic filled with moral confusion. Leprosy is one of the few medical conditions given full biblical analysis.

Like cancer, leprosy provides a "moral warning" that time is at hand. We are not to punish ourselves for our affliction, but ask what to do now. I am not being punished with cancer, but rather I am demanded to take what time I have left seriously, and to resist the inclination toward self-absorption that, sadly, is the homeland of the ill.

The red string reminds me that this struggle, between my body and my purpose, is of utter urgency. It is anything but an exercise in blind faith. It asserts that salvation is larger than what the doctors can do. Unbreakable filament, it provides connection that is direct, strong, true.

The Image of an Honorable Man


Every summer, my sisters and I, along with our husbands and children, spend a few days with our parents at Red’s Meadow resort near Mammoth. The cabins are rustic; the air is bracing; the pace is deliciously unhurried. By now, our visits are a cluster of beloved rituals. One day we go fishing; one day we take the short trail to Rainbow Falls; and on the third day, when we’re used to the altitude, we go hiking with my father up the mountain to Shadow Lake.

The rest of us keep up a constant stream of commentary while we’re walking, but my father never says much. He is close to 70 this year, but, as far as I can tell, he has no trouble making the climb. He does it the way he does everything — quietly, dependably, never flashy, but strong and steady on his feet. I like to watch him taking the trail like a mountain man, or standing contented at the summit when we’ve reached the shore of the lake. That’s how I picture him all through the year, while I’m in my office and he’s in his — still working, with no thought of retiring yet. My father doesn’t know the meaning of quit.

This week, the Torah brings us the story of Joseph, a vain, spoiled boy at odds with his brothers. Joseph is a dreamer; he’s full of self-importance; he’s a snoop, a tattletale, a troublemaker — no wonder Jacob’s other sons find him insufferable. Because he dreams of power, because his dreams nakedly reveal his yearning to rule over his brothers, our Sages tell us that Joseph deserves the comeuppance he gets: cast into a pit, sold into slavery, carried down to Egypt, where he’ll spend the rest of his life.

But Joseph is, above all, a work in progress. At one pivotal moment in our portion, the spoiled boy emerges as a man of substance. Handsome young Joseph is pursued by the wife of Potiphar, his Egyptian employer. She is frank and importunate in her sexual demands: “Lie with me,” she commands. Joseph puts her off, but she persists. Finally, she catches him alone in the house, seizes him bodily and insists that he take her to bed. And Joseph, unaccountably, becomes a hero. Defying his master’s wife, resisting the urgent call of his own adolescent hormones, he tears himself away and flees.

How does Joseph find the strength to resist the wiles of Potiphar’s wife? He isn’t sure, at first, how to handle the situation; the Talmud suggests that he came into the empty house ready to give in to her demands. But at that crucial moment, says the midrash, Joseph saw his father’s image before him. He saw Jacob’s face, he heard his voice, and, all at once, Joseph knew the right thing to do.

Esa einai el he-harim,” says Psalm 121. “I lift my eyes to the mountains — from where will my help come?” And a midrash comments: “Our fathers are called ‘mountains.'” From where shall our help come? From those who made us, from those who formed us and shaped our minds and hearts, from the parents and grandparents whose lessons we will never forget. They are monumental in our memory; the touch of their hands lives forever; their voices echo as long as we live.

Like Joseph, I think of my father, and of the help that has come from him for so many years — quiet, steady, dependable, unstinting. He will always be a picture of strength to me, even when he’s no longer strong enough to hike the Sierra Nevada. It helps to hold before you the image of an honorable man. Sometimes, when you need him most, he helps you figure out the right thing to do.


Rabbi Janet Ross Marder is director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Pacific Southwest Council.