Shortly before starting her job two years ago as assistant head of school at Kohelet Yeshiva High School, Ellen Braffman attended an all-day education conference.
The program went through lunch, and by mid-afternoon she was itching to move and finding it harder to concentrate.
Then she thought about the Kohelet students and how much sitting they are asked to do. With a demanding dual curriculum, they begin the day with davening at 7:55 a.m. and finish up at 4:50 p.m. On top of that, some students spend an hour each way commuting by bus.
After consulting some of the latest educational research, Braffman came up with the idea for “Brain Blast,” a mandatory program that has taken the place of gym and offers students a 20-minute burst of intense physical activity in the middle of most school days.
The idea was to reinvent the modern Orthodox school’s physical education program, encourage a healthier lifestyle and help students focus better in the latter half of the school day.
“We know from research that exercise oxygenates the blood, pumps it up a little bit,” said Braffman. “We put it strategically in the day when that slump happens.”
The start of the new calendar year is a time when many try to put their New Year’s fitness resolutions into practice. For the past month or so, there’s been a plethora of news stories about the benefits of exercise — not just for the body but the mind as well. National Public Radio, for example, featured a story earlier this week about a survey of 7,000 Dutch teenagers that found daily physical activity boosted mental health in adolescents.
Jewish day schools, like all schools, face increasing strains on their resources but they also have a unique challenge in that they must squeeze two curriculums into one day. And while one might assume the schools are more concerned about teaching Torah than Tae Bo, administrators at a handful of local day schools surveyed stressed their desire to nurture healthy lifestyles.
Last academic year year — Kohelet’s first at its renovated Merion Station home — the spinning, core strengthening, volleyball and other fitness sessions were taught by faculty members. (Boys and girls split up for Brain Blast.) This year, the school hired instructors from the nearby Pinnacle Training gym to get the kids’ — and teachers’ — heart rates up and muscles toned.
Eitana Friedman-Nathan, a sophomore who takes the bus from Elkins Park, said that “Brain Blast” “keeps you motivated for the rest of the day. It doesn’t have the stress of gym.”
Many schools are trying to maximize the time they have and get kids moving, some by tinkering with existing physical education programs and some, like Kohelet, by reimagining what they do.
While team sports have not been jettisoned from gym class, now the focus is less on sports like basketball or football and more on activities like Spinning, yoga, Pilates or more basic calorie-burning exercises like running.
For example — and this might sound downright un-American — this past year, administrators at the Perelman Jewish Day School’s Stern Center in Wynnewood decided to eliminate baseball and softball from gym activities. Faculty at the Conservative school found kids spent too much time just standing around; sometimes, in a 40-minute period, certain kids never touched the ball. They also figured there are plenty of places outside of school for kids to learn the game.
“You don’t want kids standing around waiting for a turn,” said Wendy Smith, the school’s principal, who for years taught physical education.
At Stern, as at many other schools, students have gym twice a week. But they also have the chance to exercise at recess and as part of various school teams. Last year, each student was given his or her own pedometer and encouraged to see how many laps they could walk or run around the school during their free time.
At the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, high school students can choose between various gym electives and make use of treadmills, elliptical machines, stationary bikes and weights in the fitness room.
At the Kosloff Torah Academy Girls High School, everything is new. In September the school completed a multimillion-dollar renovation and moved from its single hallway in the Torah Academy elementary facility into a building of its own. In addition to a new fitness program, the students now have state-of-the-art classrooms, a science lab and an art studio.
Although they didn’t get a gym — the current phys ed room doubles as the school’s auditorium and sanctuary — they got a new teacher with an entirely new approach. Yael Davidowitz is a frum, Columbia University-trained nurse who owns her own fitness studio in New York and personal training business.
Passionate about fitness, nutrition and exercise science, she teaches every child in the school twice a week. She has introduced a program that doesn’t require much fancy equipment and includes cardio-kickboxing, Zumba dancing and weight training.
Davidowitz said she hopes her students exercise outside of school and she’s teaching them routines they can do at home. One girl made her day, she said, by telling her she’d signed up for kickboxing classes at a local gym. Davidowitz is trying to push the girls hard enough so their bodies release endorphins and they associate positive feelings with working out.
“It affects the neurotransmitters in the brain,” she said, during an interview at a Jan. 6 celebration marking the opening of the new building, a historic Presbyterian church in Bala Cynwyd that most recently had been owned by Aish Philadelphia.
“We are trying to enhance the students’ ability to focus and we are trying to teach good habits. I want to give them a good time.”
Kayla Libesman, a sophomore from Merion Station, said, “We focus a lot more on developing our bodies and becoming healthy. It is not so much games, games, games.”
At other area day schools, gym class may not be dead, but it is changing.
Kevin Gowtown has been head of athletics at the Abrams Hebrew Academy in Yardley — which is run by an Orthodox rabbi but doesn’t have a denominational label — for 13 years and he said he’s always experimenting with his curriculum.
For the past few years, Gowtown has rented in-line skates for a month and turned the gym into a roller rink. He’s also devised a series of about 30 obstacle course-type challenges that require an entire class to collectively use their bodies and brains.
So what about the longtime staple of gym class — dodgeball, that lovely game in which kids hurl giant red balls at their peers and where it’s not uncommon for kids to get whacked in the face?
Actually, dodgeball has been part of Kohelet’s “Brain Blast” rotation; but Gowntown of Abrams said his class will play the game two or three times a year at most.
“If I play a dodgeball game, the ball has to be rolled” forcefully, rather than thrown, he said, since he doesn’t want his students to feel like “human targets.”