Definitely NOT in Kansas Anymore…

or even the Jordan Valley for that matter!

In my recent return to Israel, I have had the pleasure of staring to teach about 9 fitness classes weekly at our lovely new Spin-Dan studio in Tiberias. As a little bit of background, Tiberias is kind of the ‘big-deal’ city in the north of Israel. It has a population of about 40, 000 and is the local go-to for all of the Jordan Valley’s and Golan Heights’ shopping needs (and sinisterly delectable falafel.) In business terms it is a much larger market that what we had previously been dealing with in the Valley at our original studio in Degania Alef, and it took some trial and error experimentation to figure out who our new city market would be. In the end, we were in for a bit of a surprise as to who our new market would be; the orthodox Jews!

As it turns out (and what is quite evident to anyone spending any time here) Tiberias is full of religious people. There are many important rabbis buried there and a long history steeped in significant religious events, so I suppose this isn’t so surprising. Generally speaking, and in my own very personal and very limited experience, people tend to live amongst their own here. I mean, there is obviously the whole division between Arab-speakers and Hebrew-speakers, but that is a separate subject entirely. Even amongst Hebrew-speakers, the Russians tend to live with the Russians, the Ethiopians with the Ethiopians, the French with the French and even beyond the recent immigrant groups, the Hasidic with the Hasidic (the ultra-orthodox sect of Judaism coming from 18th century Eastern Europe). Again, this opinion is largely gleaned from my own observations only, and may very well be limited in scope. However, it appears to me that a clear division lies between the Hebrew-speaking second and third generation Israelis living in the kibbutziem in the Jordan Valley, and the Hebrew-speaking second and third generation religious Israelis living in Tiberias. There’s just not a whole lot of cross-over on a day-to-day basis.

Spin-Dan appears to clearly exemplify of this observation. At out club in Degania Alef (a mere 15km down the road from Tiberias) I think perhaps we have had two or maybe three visibly religious women over the years I have been here. Maybe. One that I can think of clearly anyhow. There are a good number of members who drive from Tiberias to the club in Degania, so it’s not the distance. Also, when walking around in Degania, or Ashdot, or Afiqim or any of the other kibbutziem in the Valley, you are hard pressed to see one let alone many visibly religious Jews. The mix just doesn’t appear to be happening.

Upon opening the new sports club in Tiberias, we needed to figure out who to market our services to in a large city of 40, 000. At first, we did the same old same old that had worked in the Valley for years. But it didn’t yield the return needed. We needed to change the strategy. While Yotam and I were marrying and honeymooning abroad, Dani (the namesake of Spin-Dan, and my father-in-law) made a connection with a Hasidic religious  man who was interested in getting fit. Interesting. Being the cunning entrepreneur that he is, Dani saw an opportunity here to tap a new and previously untapped market; the Hasidiem. One of the requirements (as I understand it) for religious people to exercise is that the classes be gender segregated. Men with men, women with women and no mixing in between. And what Dani realized upon meeting with this man seeking to improve his fitness level, was that there were no all-male fitness classes being offered anywhere in the Valley or in Tiberias. Eureka! Enlisting the aid of this first contact within the Hasidic community, Dani began catering select classes one a day to the religious male population. The word began to spread throughout the community and before too long, Dani had abut 12 classes running weekly exclusively for men at our Tiberias location. Success!

When we returned from abroad, Dani and Yotam offered me the opportunity to start teaching fitness classes for religious women in Tiberias. Wanting to work, and seeing that this was a great opportunity to gain teaching experience I took the offer and am now working with a good sized group of religious women nine times a week. What a trip!

Aside from being very nice, and grateful and fun to work with, these women are inadvertently teaching me about a segment of this society I am now (starting to be) a part of, a segment which I previously had no exposure to. The more I work with these women, the more I come to realize that aside from the different way of dressing, some linguistic expressions and a deeper reverence for keeping the faith, they are really not that different from the kibbutznik women I teach bellydance to and the other female members of our Degania club.

Thus, once again I am left with the impression that basically, people are people, and while we all may look very different on the outside, on the inside we’re made from the same mold. And that’s really what counts.