Wrong Turn on the Way to Medical School? Not for These Gym Jews

By Avi Dresner

Published July 22, 2005, issue of July 22, 2005.
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We’ve all pretty much come to recognize that, professionally speaking, Jews today can be just about anything. The old immigrant stereotypes (tailor, peddler) faded away long ago, much as more recent aspirational visions (lawyer, doctor), too, seem shopworn and limiting. But still, there occasionally comes a job that seems, well, too goyish for a Jew. Case in point: The personal trainer.

“Sometimes, when I tell someone who is Jewish what I do,” said David Cohen, a San Diego-based trainer, “there is some awkward silence.” And yet, an unscientific look at the state of the art seems to show that the Jewish trainer is not as rare as one might think. Indeed, there are some trainers who not only see no conflict between Judaism and toning people’s physiques, but also see one as an extension of the other.

Generally, those who talk about “Jewish training” have a view of fitness that goes beyond the merely physical. They’ll employ a more holistic vision encompassing the spiritual, the emotional and the physical. Shari Kaufman, a trainer and rabbi’s wife from the ultra-Orthodox enclave of Monsey, N.Y., described fitness in distinctly religious terms. In speaking with the Forward, Kaufman equated fitness with the concept known as kiruv, bringing Jews closer to God. A 45-year-old mother of seven, she was able to realize her dream of becoming a trainer only after sending her last child to yeshiva. Kaufman, who worked out with a number of trainers before becoming religiously observant, said that she “give[s] more spiritually and emotionally than [she] ever got.”

Kaufman is not alone in seeing training as a form of giving. Jonathan Fass, a 28-year-old graduate student from New Brunswick, N.J., said, “When I help someone in the gym, I am performing a mitzvah, and I am very proud that I have studied and devoted myself to a field that allows me to do just that.”

Some trainers likened their work to prayer. “When I help a senior citizen strengthen their spine in a modified yoga pose, or lead a ‘Jump Rope Jam’ class of 25 fitness lunatics,” said Anne Etra, a trainer from Richmond Hill, N.Y., “I feel as close to God as is humanly possible: the same sense I get… when I recite the Shema, when I feel my body weakening mid-Yom Kippur or when I hear the sound of the shofar.”

Leslie Kleinfeld, an Anchorage, Alaska-based trainer and onetime health educator, compared training to teaching. Then again, in Alaska, perhaps exercise is simply a way of keeping warm. But Kleinfeld does not allow herself to be hemmed in by geography. As a “phone coach,” she has clients spanning the globe.

Daya Kaplan of Chapel Hill, N.C., described a tender, almost motherly conception of training. Eschewing the “slave driver” approach, Kaplan said that her philosophy is “Take it easy, take care of yourself, don’t get hurt.”

Others, too, spoke of fitness in familial terms. Josh Salzmann, the son of a Reform rabbi from Pittsfield, Mass., said that his Jewish background has been effective in helping him to adopt his clients into his own “fitness family.” Salzmann began his career in the athletic world. In the mid-1970s he wrestled for Israel on the same team that lost three members at the 1972 Munich Olympics. He wound up working as a conditioning coach for the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball and soccer teams and, through various soccer and other connections, made his way to London in the mid-’80s, hoping to break into sports conditioning with British soccer players. That never panned out, but in the 20 years since, Salzmann has trained John Cleese, Kenneth Branagh, the duchess of York, Hugh Jackman, Angelina Jolie and Paul McCartney. Asked if he thinks there’s a difference between Jewish and non-Jewish trainers, Salzmann said, “I think Jewish trainers would probably have a better sense of humor, and be able to know about anxieties a bit better than most.”

Boris Dyskin’s path to personal training began, like Salzmann’s, with athletics. An Olympic caliber weightlifter in the Soviet Union, Dyskin, 51, immigrated to America from Moscow 15 years ago. Antisemitism helped shape his career choice, when official university quotas on Jews prevented him from pursuing a career in mathematics and steered him instead to the Moscow State Institute of Physical Culture and Sport, a world he says was relatively open to Jews. According to Dyskin, Jewish trainers weren’t at all uncommon in the Soviet Union. He thinks the profession isn’t as respected here as it was in the Soviet Union, because there one had to study for five years to become a trainer, whereas here some personal training certifications can be gotten after only two days. Although not religiously observant, Dyskin, who now lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., considers himself a fervent Zionist; two of his five daughters live in Israel. When asked if he thought it was important to have a Jewish trainer, Dyskin responded, “Just as important as having a Jewish doctor.”

Avi Dresner is a freelance writer and personal trainer in Manhattan and the Berkshires.

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