Eight years ago Rabbi Pesach Sommer had what he has called a “come-to-Jesus moment.” The death of his father from complications of Type 2 diabetes — and his own subsequent diagnosis — was the wake up call he needed to put his health in order.
Before his father died in 2006, Sommer was already 70 lbs overweight. During his year of mourning, he gained an additional 40 lbs which brought the 5’6” educator to 250 lbs — and a Type 2 diabetes diagnosis.
Today, Sommer weighs 100 lbs less and is a trim long-distance runner who encourages others in the Orthodox community to pay attention to their health and get active.
In America today, Jewish communities not only look up at rabbis and cantors, but also look to them as spiritual role models. And in an age of health consciousness, some also expect their rabbis and cantors to be examples of physical wellbeing and fitness.
However, for some Jewish religious leaders — as for many people — getting down to and keeping a healthy weight is extremely difficult. Recently, several members of the Jewish clergy have gone public about their struggles with weight and the drastic steps they have taken to shed excess pounds. Their stories, found on social media and in the Jewish and national press, serve as inspirations to others in similar struggles.
The Times of Israel spoke with a cantor and two rabbis about their weight loss journeys.
Born (again) to run
A Passaic, NJ Jewish day school teacher and father of eight, Rabbi Sommer says he hadn’t meant to be provocative with the Christian-sounding reference (his now infamous “come-to-Jesus moment“) when interviewed by CNN in October.
“I simply meant that I realized that I had to get serious about losing weight, or I would likely suffer the same fate as my father,” he tells The Times of Israel.
Sommer, 43, wasn’t heavy as a teenager, but after he got married, he started packing on the pounds due to a more sedentary lifestyle.
“I tried dieting and exercising a bit, but my weight just yo-yoed,” he says.
“For me, it was a matter of relearning how to relate to food. I didn’t use a nutritionist. I just did a lot of reading and cut out the garbage,” he says. “I started eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.”
Exercise has also been a key to Sommer’s weight loss and maintenance. At first, he would engage in marathon viewing of the TV series “24” while riding a stationary bicycle.
Several months later, he switched to running by getting involved in charity races for non-profit organizations like Chai Lifeline, which serves children with serious illnesses.
For about six years, he ran seven days a week (on Saturdays he ran after Shabbat was over). At one point, he was running 70 miles per week, but at this point he has cut back somewhat.
Sommer says the “tremendous” support he has received from the Jewish community and from his wife and children (who sometimes train and race with him) has been instrumental in keeping him going. He, in turn, has encouraged others to embrace a healthier lifestyle by establishing running clubs for men and women in his community, and also by starting a blog focusing on running and Judaism.
Sommer is deeply concerned about what he calls “a very unhealthy food culture” in the Orthodox community.
“Any food with a Yiddish name will kill you,” he says only half-jokingly.
Remodeling her ‘Temple’
Last month, Cantor Jessica Hutchings announced on Facebook that she had arrived at the one-year anniversary of her gastric bypass surgery.
Exactly twelve months earlier, she had undergone the Roux-en-Y gastric bypass procedure (RGB), by which her stomach had been stapled to create a small pouch that holds less food. In addition, a portion of her small intestine was shaped into a “Y,” connecting it to the stomach pouch so that food being digested would travel directly into the lower part of the small intestine, bypassing the first part of the small intestine (the duodenum) and the first part of the second section of the small intestine (the jejunum).
Hutchings’ ensuing 85-lb weight loss has been a result of both the newly limited size of her stomach, and the restriction of the amount of calories and nutrients that are absorbed into her body because of the bypass.
“I have struggled with my weight my entire life,” Hutchings, 29, tells The Times of Israel by phone from her office at Congregation Ner Tamid in Las Vegas.
‘I knew I was remodeling my “Temple” in order to create a better one, a stronger one, one that could easily birth a child and live 120 years’
“All the other members of my family are normal size or thin, but from the age of three I was always heavy even though I always maintained a healthy lifestyle by exercising and eating healthy food,” she says.
Despite undergoing testing for metabolic disorders, her doctors were unable to determine a medical cause for her being so overweight.
“I tried many things, including Weight Watchers and doctor-supervised low glycemic and low calorie diets. I lost 80 lbs, but it came back even though I was keeping up good habits,” says the newly ordained cantor.
At one point, she was packing 286 lbs on her 5’6” frame. She had always embraced her curves, but she felt that she needed to take drastic measures to ensure her future wellbeing.
In a sermon she gave three and a half week post-operative (at which time she was still in her student pulpit in Los Angeles), she likened the human body to the Holy Temple.
“I knew I was remodeling my ‘Temple’ in order to create a better one, a stronger one, one that could easily birth a child and live 120 years (OK, maybe not 120, but let’s hope!) I had faith in myself that the difficulty I was subjecting myself to would be more than 100 percent worth it,” she told her congregation.
Hutchings’ recovery has not been without challenges, especially at the beginning.
“I’ve learned what I can eat and what my body rejects,” she says. “I have a whole new plumbing system.”
There are certain foods she simply can no longer eat, including frozen yogurt, one of her favorite treats.
The biggest adjustment for her has been switching from looking at food as a kind of enjoyment to regarding it as simply something she needs for survival.
“Part of Jewish life is oneg, of being together and eating, so changing perspective on food has been hard,” she says.
Fortunately, Hutchings’ surgery and weight loss (she is now down to 188 lbs, on her way to a final goal of 175 lbs) have not affected her voice.
“The housing of my voice has changed, so I have needed to change my approach, and I’m working with a new vocal coach on that,” she says.
“But my voice is just as strong as it ever was.”
Not willing to compromise
Seven years have passed since Rabbi Nat Ezray, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City, California, underwent gastric bypass surgery to lose weight after he suffered three cardiac episodes. And even now, not a day goes by that Ezray, 53, does not have to think about mindful eating and exercise.
“It has receded into the background, but in other ways it is always there,” he says about the surgery and its ensuing lifestyle changes.
Before developing trouble with his heart, the Conservative rabbi struggled with weight issues from childhood, and in particular since entering rabbinical school in the late 1980s. He tried different diet and exercise programs, but his weight climbed to a high of 280 lbs.
After his surgery (RGB, the same procedure that Cantor Hutchings opted for), Ezray, who stands 5’6.5” tall, dropped 80 lbs, and his diabetes and high blood pressure problems disappeared.
Today, he is steady at 215 lbs, and his health is monitored on an annual basis by his cardiologist and his bariatric surgeon at Stanford University. He also meets weekly with a counselor who specializes in nutrition and psychology to discuss his food choices.
Ezray has been open with his congregation about his weight and health struggles, and he preaches from the bimah regularly about the Jewish context for self care. He speaks about healthy choices, but also about having compassion (for oneself and for others) when they are not always made.
No matter how busy Ezray’s day gets, he makes sure to schedule in time for his workouts, which include cardio work, weightlifting and stretching. He also prefers “walk and talk” sessions over sit-down meetings with congregants.
The rabbi works long hours and his days are full, but he does not forget that his health comes first and that he must fit in time to exercise.
“I can’t and I won’t compromise on this part of my day,” he says.