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August 29, 2015 / 14 Elul, 5775
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Fat Free Yeshivas

I recently attended an all-day shidduch program sponsored by the National Council of Young Israel in Manhattan. I spoke to a pediatrician, Dr. Dienstag, who told me that she was seeing female patients as young as nine and ten who had developed eating disorders because they were told that they had to be thin in order to get a good shidduch.

On the flip side, she expressed her concern about the rampant obesity amongst children in our
community. She echoed what I heard a year ago from a pediatric endocrinologist concerning the alarming increase of Type 2 Diabetes in school age youngsters.

Compounding the problem is the fact that many yeshiva boys are easily fracturing their bones because they are deficient in Vitamin D and calcium. They are deficient in Vitamin D because of insufficient exposure to sunlight, and deficient in calcium due to a lack of exercise.

There is a mindset in the haredi communities that any activity not related to learning is bitul z’man, a waste of time. Any activity but learning is seen as frivolous. To that end, children often go to school when it is still dark outside, and come home after dark. Recess periods have become shorter, and gym classes have been obliterated altogether. Recently, some
Hasidic rebbes have begun discouraging unmarried young men from attending weddings, because time used for singing and dancing could be better utilized by learning.

Sadly and probably unwittingly, the Torah world is undermining their children’s health. A colleague related a story to me of spending a Shabbos with friends who live near the shore. A 12 year old son of the family – who was grossly overweight – asked his mother if he could take a walk along the beach. His mother said no, insisting that his time would be better
spent in learning. The boy vented out his frustration by going to the fridge and taking a big chunk of cake to his room. This well-intentioned mother was oblivious to the fact that a stroll would very likely increase his ability to concentrate when he learned. Besides, his enjoyment the world Hashem created would be another form of learning. That is why we recite brachot upon witnessing the beauties of nature such as trees in bloom, great oceans, vast deserts or
lightning and thunder.

Years ago, in Toronto, when my boys were preteens, I was introduced to a man whose credentials on paper were impressive. He was a scientist, a child psychologist, and quite learned. He let me know that if we were to marry, my boys would have to stop playing hockey (they were in a Jewish league – set up for shomer Shabbat kids) since they could use that time for study. (Their pets also would have to go since they took up precious time as well.) I let him know that he could take a proverbial “hike”.

Life – even for children – can be very stressful – and it is a well-known medical fact that exercise relieves stress and strengthens the immune system. Physical activities such as sports also enhance mental health, releasing endorphins in the brain that naturally suppress depression. People who frequently jog experience what has been labelled “runners’ high”
because of how good they feel after an energizing run.

The irony is that educators and parents who are so concerned that their students learn at their
maximum capacity – are restricting the very thing that would increase their students’ ability to absorb information. Children who are physically fit have better circulation and are more alert and learn better than their easily tired, lethargic classmates.

In some cases, yeshivas have inadvertently become the “sweatshops” of the modern era, with
students hunched over their desks hour after hour, just like their great grandparents were hunched over their sewing machines 100 years ago, working 12 hour days. We adults would not tolerate being forced to work at our jobs six days a week from early morning to late evening. Civil rights lawyers would have a heyday in court suing employers with those
expectations! Then why is it OK for our children?

With the kosher nosh industry booming, with dozens of sugary treats overflowing our pantries and tired kids unconsciously overeating to get a temporary energy boosts, this generation of youngsters is at serious risk for diabetes – an extremely insidious disease with lots of serious complications such as blindness, skin ulcers, limb amputations – and cancer and heart disease.

The Torah exhorts us to take care of ourselves. Providing extended recesses, on-campus gym, swimming, even dancing at weddings is a good beginning. Hashem created our bodies as a temple for our neshamas. It’s time to stop desecrating His gift.

As for learning – the healthier one is, the longer one’s life – and the longer one can devote oneself to learning.

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