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‘Next Great Big Jewish Idea’ Is A Long-Forgotten One


Every January, in an annual rite, nearly half of all Americans make New Year’s resolutions to lose weight. About half of those will pledge eternal servitude to their new diet plans. Sometimes the diets work – in the short run. We drop a size or two, look younger, more svelte and bask in insincere gratuitous compliments from colleagues and friends. But two-thirds of Americans who lose weight gain it back within a year. Over 90 percent gain it back within five years.

Nevertheless, we are introduced each year to the “next great big idea” in easy weight loss – from the Cabbage Soup diet of the 1980’s to the South Beach diet to The Fat Smash diet to the French Women Don’t Get Fat diet. We Americans will spend close to $40 billion on diet books and paraphernalia this year alone.

The rules of human nature are inviolate. We are always looking for the quick fix. Endlessly searching for a miraculous instantaneous elixir, we are suckers for every new diet plan that comes out. Titles like The 3-Hour Diet and 21 Pounds in 21 Days speak to our immediate desire for dramatic results, fast.

Meanwhile, despite all the diet books, researchers at Johns Hopkins University predict that 75 percent of Americans will be overweight by 2015 and 41 percent will be obese. Currently, two-thirds of Americans are overweight. (Full disclosure: this writer is not in the minority group.) Meanwhile, about 60 percent of Americans do not get enough physical activity. Let’s face it: for most of us, the only exercise we get is jumping to conclusions.

Back in the 1950’s, the “next great big idea” for weight loss was something called the vibrating hip belt machine. Some of us old enough to remember can recall television commercials in which a woman (usually reading a book) stood with a belt wrapped around her waist while a gyrating, noisy contraption supposedly jiggled and vibrated away the excess pounds. The allure of the belt was simple: no sweat, no energy, minimal time commitment and no major financial obligations.

If we viewed photos of the vibrating hip belt weight loss machine today, we would probably laugh out loud at the absurdity. We all know the adage: if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

The stark reality is that the only way to lose weight and keep it off is to eat less and exercise more. That means making long-term lifestyle commitments to exercise and diet. It’s not glamorous. It’s not immediate or easy. It takes time to implement. But it’s the only thing that works.

Seeing that fads are so attractive, it should come as no great surprise that, with grand fanfare and headlines, a major Jewish philanthropic foundation recently announced the offering of a substantial financial prize and an academic appointment at a prestigious university to the individual who comes up with the “next great big idea” to change the way Jews think about themselves and their community.

There is nothing wrong with seeking creative ideas to reinvigorate our community, but they are like fad diets compared to long-term diet and exercise. The “next great big Jewish idea” was initiated 2,000 years ago, but we Jews of the 21st century have developed collective amnesia and have forgotten it.

The great scholar and hero Yehoshua Ben Gamla provided the answer in 64 C.E. His “next great big idea” was mandating that each Jewish community pay for the Jewish education of its children. We are told that without Ben Gamla’s initiatives, Jewish survival and Torah would have been lost.

Ben Gamla’s communal prioritization of resources for Jewish education has worked for thousands of years – until today. We Jews are wonderful at establishing charities for the welfare of the larger Jewish community. We have rightfully adopted policies that include housing the homeless, caring for the elderly, feeding the hungry and supporting the State of Israel. Somewhere along the way, though, we abandoned our children. There is no longer a sense of communal responsibility and obligation to educate our children in Jewish schools.

Case in point: the annual gathering of Federations in Nashville this past November. According to the published program, during the four-day conference, 112 time slots were allocated for meetings to discuss major issues facing the Jewish people. Only one of those time slots, where attendance was limited by invitation only, dealt exclusively with the crisis of funding Jewish education.

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