Still a bit groggy from her nap, 5-year-old Shulamit Vered Levintov was all dressed for her lesson, sporting a bathing cap, swimsuit and flotation device; the only problem was she seemed to have no interest in getting into the pool.
She'd taken a few steps down the pool ladder, but remained half in and half out for an agonizingly long time. Standing on the side of the steaming indoor facility and fully dressed, Sura Leah Levintov was unable to encourage her daughter to enter the water. Three of the child's siblings were also taking part in the group lesson, and they had been in the water for several minutes.
In fact, Shulamit' 4-year-old brother Leib Shimon, whom his mother acknowledged is the most enthusiastic about aquatics, had already completed several laps while clinging to a kickboard, splashing heartily with his feet.
Finally, with some coaxing from Arcady Dibner — a Russian-born swim instructor at the Jewish Community Centers' Klein Branch in Northeast Philadelphia — Shulamit finally descended the last few steps. (Dibner, 50, happens to be a former Soviet Olympian and coach of the Israeli national swim team. Now living in Philadelphia, his students range from beginners to very competitive racers.)
Some tears were shed in the next few minutes, but before long, Shulamit was right alongside the group comprised of her siblings and several other kids, trying to see how far from the wall she could swim on her own.
"Kick for as long as you can," exhorted Dibner.
Sura Leah Levintov, an Orthodox Jew, is the mother of four girls and one boy, and is expecting her sixth child. The Moscow native, who worked as a neurologist in Russia but doesn't practice medicine here, noted that she's determined to expose her children to activities other than Torah study, including art, music, the study of foreign languages and sports.
But there's another reason — one that comes from above, so to speak — that she and her husband sacrifice precious time and money to bring their children to group swim lessons twice a week throughout the year. It's the same reason that Lilly Kotlar, another Russian-born Orthodox Jew, registered her young son and daughter for private lessons with Dibner at the Klein.
"It's a mitzvah," exclaimed Kotlar.
A Better Chance for Survival
According to Jewish tradition, a father is advised to teach his son how to swim, something that is perhaps little-known outside the Orthodox world. While the language is specifically male, many Orthodox families consider these instructions to include daughters as well.
The primary source for this comes from the Kiddushin tractate of the Babylonian Talmud, the ancient and voluminous compilation of oral law, that also includes rabbinic thought, discussion and lots of tales.
The text states that "a father is obligated to do the following for his son: to circumcise him, to redeem him if he is a first born, to teach him Torah, to find him a wife, and to teach him a trade. Others say: teaching him how to swim as well."
But does such a reference — seemingly couched by the preface "others say" — constitute Jewish law in the eyes of a community that views halachah as binding and a guide for much of life?
The answer, according to Rabbi Kenneth Brander, dean of the Center for the Jewish Future at Yeshiva University in New York City, is a qualified "yes." First of all, he noted that, as with Torah study, parents are not obligated to do the teaching themselves and can hire a qualified substitute.
Brander acknowledged that there is no mention of swimming in the Shulchan Aruch, the 16th-century catalogue of Jewish law that most rabbis consult for rulings on halachah, since the Talmud is often complex and indirect. Technically, it might not rise to the level of obligation under Jewish law, but the very fact that it's mentioned in the Talmud gives the advice substantial weight.
Rashi, the great medieval scholar, discussed the quote from Kiddushin in his commentary on the Talmud. He wrote, according to Brander, that in a world where vessels were the dominant mode of transportation, having strong swimming skills afforded passengers a somewhat better chance for survival in case of an accident on the high seas.
While modern technology has made shipwrecks rare events rather than everyday occurrences, swimming is no less a safety issue than it was in Rashi's time, although now it's centered much more around recreation.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 3,582 drowning deaths occurred in 2005, the last year for which there are reliable statistics. In Pennsylvania, that number was 116, or slightly less than one death per 100,000. The national average for 2005 was 1.2 deaths per 100,000; states where there are more bodies of water and more backyard pools report higher rates.
"This is all about making sure that one's child is safe," said Brander. The father of five, who recently relocated from Florida, noted that pool safety was a high propriety among his Orthodox neighbors down south: Pool fences were a must, and the pool was always the first place you looked if a young child was out of sight.
In Brander's view, there doesn't need to be a separate statute in Jewish law devoted to swimming because it clearly falls under the dictums for parents to prepare their children for life's challenges, and arm them with skills to guard their lives responsibly.
"We are not the owners of our bodies, and we have to be sure to treat them with the utmost care," added Brander.
According to Jewish tradition, people are the stewards of a body that is essentially on loan from God, so protecting it and keeping healthy become holy acts.
Rabbi Shraga Sherman, of Chabad Lubavitch of the Main Line, expressed a more metaphorical take on the talmudic quote, arguing that, in essence, swimming is just one example of the practical life skills that parents must make sure their children possess.
"The education we give our children must provide them with the tools for how to navigate the mighty and tumultuous waters known as life," said Sherman.
Issue Gets a Little Complicated
Anecdotally, it doesn't appear that Orthodox children learn to swim in greater or lesser numbers than the rest of the Jewish community. And like the Jewish community at large, the most likely place to learn the freestyle and breaststroke is, of course, at summer camp.
But matters get more complicated in the Orthodox community as children grow. That's because, once boys and girls reach a certain age — somewhere between 8 and 12, depending on the mores of a community and the advice of their particular rabbi — they're not supposed to swim or appear in a bathing suit in a setting that includes bathers of the opposite gender.
This stems from tzniut, or the Jewish laws pertaining to modesty and dress. For 12-year-old Tzipora-Fayga Levintov — who's even managed to learn the difficult butterfly stroke — that means she can no longer join her three sisters and brother in Dibner's class. Sometimes, on Sundays, when the Klein reserves several hours for women's-only swim, the girl heads to the pool with her mom, Sura Leah, though her formal lessons have come to an end.
Besie Katz, principal of Politz Hebrew Academy of Philadelphia in the Northeast, where four of the five Levintov siblings are enrolled, said that "we do believe that the Talmud is correct — that children have to learn how to swim. It's an important skill for survival."
She noted that a number of students take advantage of the separate swim hours offered at the JCC, adding that "we would love to be able to afford a swimming pool and teach them swimming, but we don't have the resources."
Nomi Levene, director of student activities at Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia in Wynnewood, said that, at both the JCC Klein and Kaiserman branches, the times set aside for separate swims are often inconvenient for students, such as in the middle of the day.
Levene said that in many New York Orthodox enclaves, winter swim programs are easy to come by; not so here in Philadelphia. Partially out of frustration that students in the girls high school weren't getting the opportunity to keep up their strokes, Levene arranged for an all-girls' lifeguard training class to be taught at the Kaiserman during school hours.
She said that when it started, a number of the dozen or so students had difficulty completing several laps, and were gasping for air by the time they reached the pool's ledge. But, by the end, they'd all vastly improved and passed all the requisite tests to become American Red Cross certified lifeguards.
A number went on to work at the Lubavitch-sponsored Camp Gan Israel Country Day Camp in Collegeville, which splits up girls and boys for all activities, not just swimming. In fact, just like the rest of the Jewish community, Orthodox kids primarily became acclimated to the water in day or overnight camp. At Gan Israel, male lifeguards supervise the boys, and female lifeguards watch over the girls.
"A lot of families don't have the opportunity to train their kids. The vast majority are relying on us," said Rabbi Zalman Gerber, camp director. "I believe the message is that, 'Yes, you have a responsibility for the spiritual development of your child, but it doesn't end there.' "
At the Modern Orthodox Camp Nesher in the Poconos, the lifeguard staff is all female. Camp director Jeff Braverman said that the restrictions against women seeing men in bathing suits are much less stringent than vice versa. He added that he's got a handful of campers who take swimming seriously, and in recent years, he's arranged for swim competitions with other Orthodox camps; these, too, are separated by gender.
But for the vast majority of campers, it's simply about learning the essentials.
"As an Orthodox institution, we should be teaching our kids to swim, at least basically," affirmed Braverman. "Summer camp is synonymous with swimming. Do people say we are consciously doing this in observance of that mitzvah? Not necessarily, but it certainly is on my mind."