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Challenge promotes healthy body, spirit, and synagogue
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Challenge promotes healthy body, spirit, and synagogue

The Presidential Weight Loss Challenge has members of Congregation Ahavas Achim pledging money for each pound Seth Berman loses; he has adopted a healthier diet to ensure the campaign’s success. Photos by Harry Glazer
The Presidential Weight Loss Challenge has members of Congregation Ahavas Achim pledging money for each pound Seth Berman loses; he has adopted a healthier diet to ensure the campaign’s success. Photos by Harry Glazer

Tackling a longtime problem has inspired Seth Berman to motivate other members of Congregation Ahavas Achim to adopt a healthier way of life — and help the synagogue itself achieve better financial health.

Berman has long struggled with his weight and, as president of the Highland Park congregation, he also worries about its finances. One day, he came up with a way to meet both challenges.

“It hit me like a flash,” said Berman, a lawyer in Englewood Cliffs. “My weight has been up and down for some years. And, although the shul is doing fine, finances are always a challenge.”

His brainstorm: asking congregants to make a donation to the synagogue for every pound lost — by their president. After running the idea by his wife, Mindy, several synagogue leaders, and Rabbi Steven Miodownik — who had a few creative ideas of his own — the Presidential Weight Loss Challenge was launched in January.

Introducing the idea at the Dec. 25 dedication of Ahavas Achim’s $1.5 million renovation and expansion, Berman said, he told members, “‘You have a new and improved building. Now you need a new and improved president.’ The hardest part of any weight loss is motivation, and I told them that the best way to motivate me was by giving to their favorite cause.”

Berman is targeting the campaign — which will run through June 30 — not only to reducing his avoirdupois, but to setting an example for others so they will embark on their own health-improvement regimens, which may include not only weight loss but exercise, stress reduction, and improving mental outlook.

With the help of fellow congregant Marnin Goldberg, Berman set up a blog, alighteraa.org, where he writes about striving toward his goal and where supporters have offered suggestions and encouragement.

Miodownik came up with the idea to have Berman weigh in weekly and announce his progress just before the president takes the pulpit at Saturday morning Shabbat services to make the community announcements.

So far he has lost more than 20 pounds — he joined Weight Watchers on-line — but, he acknowledged, “there have been weeks I haven’t lost and actually gained. But we’ve always tried to keep this lighthearted and fun. We don’t want to be judgmental of anyone. Weight loss is a lifelong challenge, and I want to convey that it’s okay to have ups and downs.

“This isn’t a competition; it’s a challenge.”

‘Most noble goal’

So how has the presidential challenge benefited the synagogue’s finances thus far? No figures will be available until after June 30, said Berman, because he is concerned that knowing the figure may result in a loss of incentive and his putting back some of the pounds. He has no set specific weight loss or fund-raising goal and, he said, hopes to continue losing beyond the campaign’s end, no matter its success.

But beyond Berman’s “immediate goal to lose weight and bring in extra finances,” he said, what has been achieved is that “a number of people have been inspired to make changes in their own lifestyles and their family’s lifestyle.” He said this is his “most noble goal: that other people get inspired by this.”

His inspirational program includes working out five mornings a week on an elliptical machine, and he has occasionally used a personal trainer. Another synagogue member, Josh Ostrin, has also served as a coach and motivator.

Berman has also periodically sponsored a “healthy table” at the synagogue’s kiddush, where people can discuss any issue while nibbling on healthy food.

With the coming of spring, he said, he is organizing fitness walks with congregants.

Berman said he hopes other synagogues will join him in promoting “a healthy Jewish lifestyle.” (He invites others to contact him at sethcberman@yahoo.com.)

“We are talking about not only helping the body, but the spirit as well,” said Berman. “Weight loss is not only an American obsession; it’s also a mitzva to take care of your body.”

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