December 10, 2018

Week of Wisdom, Wellness

Gale Trachtenberg was dealing with some discomfort in her hip and shoulder as she walked into a free group exercise at Century City Physical Therapy.

Afterward? Not so much.

“I was feeling some pain in my lower shoulder blade, and I don’t feel that right now,” Trachtenberg said after the 90-minute Feldenkrais class, which uses gentle movement and directed attention to improve movement and enhance human functioning. “It was pretty amazing.”

Perhaps even more surprising: The class was part of a wide-ranging conference called “Jewish Wisdom and Wellness: A Week of Learning,” organized by the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and Cedars-Sinai.

The April 23 Feldenkrais class, “Awareness Through Movement,” was one of more than 60 classes, workshops and lectures featured during the April 21-27 conference, which drew more than 2,500 people, according to Jonathan Schreiber, Cedars-Sinai’s director of community engagement.

The week kicked off with a panel moderated by Rob Eshman, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Jewish Journal, featuring four local rabbis discussing Judaism and health crises; the final event took place on April 27 with a musical evening dedicated to the memory of Debbie Friedman, the much-revered composer and teacher. The closing ceremony, held at Leo Baeck Temple, attracted more than 700 people, according to Kalsman Institute spokeswoman Joanne Tolkoff.

In between, people could sign up, free of charge, for classes on yoga and stress reduction, chevra kadisha training, safe driving habits for teenagers and even meditative tai chi. According to the Web site for the weeklong conference,, the tai chi class involved “Taoist-based standing movement-meditations.” After warming up, the participants studied how the Shema “can be used to overcome fear and lead to a higher level of consciousness.” Rabbi Andrew Hahn (the “Kirtan Rabbi”) used the Taoist standing meditation to help internalize the teachings.

Classes were held in numerous locations across the city, including the San Fernando Valley, and even stretched into Orange County.

The Feldenkrais class drew about a dozen participants, mostly women. Spread out on mats with the lights dimmed, Stacy Barrows, co-owner of Century City Physical Therapy and a certified practitioner, instructed people how to be aware of simple, everyday movements, from sitting down and standing up, to lying on the floor, fully stretched out.

One of the core tenets of Feldenkrais is that movements that are repeatedly done, but done poorly — such as an imbalance when moving from a sitting position to a standing position — can result in injuries and chronic pain. A major goal of the exercises in the class was for the participants to become aware of routine body movements, notice possible imbalances and, ideally, prevent chronic injuries before onset.

Created by Moshe Feldenkrais, a Russian-Israeli physicist who died in 1984, the Feldenkrais Method, and specifically Awareness Through Movement, has become increasingly popular within the physical therapy field.

Barrows, who has been certified since 1994, told her Wisdom and Wellness participants before beginning to “respect your pain.”

“Pain is a biologic tool that has done a very good job to alert you that there’s trouble,” she said. 

Trachtenberg, who had hip pain in addition to shoulder pain before doing the Feldenkrais class, compared the gentle awareness exercises to the more taxing Pilates exercises that she has done previously.

“If you go to a Pilates class, it’s a big exercise. It’s a lot of movement,” she said. “This is more gentle movement — back and forth.”

Shoshana Weissman, who is used to vigorous workouts, appreciated the more subtle approach offered by Feldenkrais.

“My body’s used to all the hard movements, so this is completely the opposite,” Weissman said. “We are so used to one way of movement that we forget about all the other ways.”

The weeklong program was the first of its kind held by Kalsman and Cedars-Sinai. According to Schreiber, the grass-roots nature of the conference — congregations, academic institutions and nonprofits were asked to propose programs and then received micro-grants to cover their costs — was a major reason for its success.

“Judaism has something to say about people’s health, about wellness, about spirituality,” Schreiber said. “It’s certainly something that we hope to do in the future.”