by Cantor Jason Kaufman

One year ago, I decided to live a healthier life. Though I think that it is essential to state that living a healthier lifestyle is not necessarily synonymous with weight loss, for me it was. I was significantly overweight. I felt that God had a different plan for the life that I was living and that my weight was becoming an every day obstacle for me to overcome. I needed to make a change.

Losing weight is challenging enough without doing it publicly. When I first started, I had a strict policy that I would not discuss this journey with anyone – and make no mistake, it is a journey. I didn’t feel comfortable sharing this part of my life yet and I lacked the vocabulary to discuss this in a way that I thought would benefit anyone. Eventually, the choice of privacy was no longer mine to make. Once I lost about 15 lbs, my weight loss became quite noticeable. By the time I lost 60, people were telling me that I was unrecognizable. Sometimes this pleased me, but other times I felt overwhelmed and judged by their well-intentioned comments.

Working out with God The fact that I was struggling to live a healthier life so publically gave permission for many to share their own personal health struggles with me. Slowly, I began to share my struggle with others. As I became more open with my journey, many became more open with theirs. No longer did I duck the familiar faces that I would see at the weekly “Weight Watchers” meetings that I attended. Instead, I began to look forward to these times as an authentic extension of the synagogue community. We applauded each other’s successes, nurtured our disappointments and supported each other in a way that I believe is unique to a community of faith. This made me wonder what lessons can be taken from these meetings and brought into the larger synagogue community.

I have always felt that synagogue is where one should bring their most authentic selves. A synagogue is a community that should welcome our struggles, not cause us to hide them in shame. From the most serious of eating disorders, to the “yo-yo dieter”, to the bat and bar mitzvah student who casually makes a derogatory comment about their physical appearance, it is clear to me that there is not a person in this world who is free of dealing with body image issues.

How can we as a Jewish community care for our spiritual health without being equally focused on our physical well-being? How can we promote physical health though, without narrowly focusing on weight loss and athleticism? Most importantly, where is God in this conversation?

I believe that Judaism, at its core, is about bringing intentionality to our lives. By bringing purpose into an act that may initially be perceived as mundane, we transform the ordinary into holy. We do this each time we say Hamotzi or Birkat Hamazon. Should we also create a prayer before we begin to exercise, pausing to acknowledge that taking ownership of our physical health exists in our partnership with God and honors the notion that we are made in the image of God?

With a modern mindset, we debate whether or not certain foods should be considered kosher, not solely due to their ingredients, but to the ethics that the food is prepared with. Should we additionally consider the nutritional facts, or portion size, of certain foods to determine whether they are kosher or not, as well?

In the past, meals and coffee shops were the location of choice for me to meet with congregants outside of the synagogue offices. I spent much of my time sedentary, surrounded by food. Now, I choose walking or running on the lakefront path on Lake Michigan for important conversations.

Perhaps more synagogue programming should focus on health and well being, whether that is in the form of text study, prayer, exercise, or nutrition classes.

I’ve been on a journey discovering that physical health is an integral and essential part of ones spiritual health. The next step on this path is conversation. Let’s go on a walk with each other. Let’s share nutritional tips with each other. There is much to be explored, discussed, learned and taught.

I hope you’ll join me.

Cantor Jason Kaufman serves Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, IL.

Originally posted on the American Conference of Cantors’ website.