Merav Fiorella’s dream is to run in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, a fund-raiser for breast cancer treatment and research, in Israel next May.
“My heart is in Jerusalem,” she said. That’s where she was born and lived until she was 11, when her family came to live in New Jersey.
Fiorella wants to show her husband Sal and her children the country. She also wants to inspire overweight Israelis to get fit and healthy. Although Israelis are relatively trim by American standards, she already has some fans clamoring to meet her.
Last year, Fiorella was featured occasionally on the NBC reality show The Biggest Loser, as she supported one of the contestants, her cousin Mark Pinhasovich.
As Pinhasovich struggled to lose 213 of his 421 pounds, Fiorella, then almost 300 pounds, dieted and exercised as well in a show of support. These days, she’s a fit, well-muscled 163.
Fiorella said she hopes Pinhasovich, who took home the show’s $100,000 “At Home” prize, will run in the race in Israel with her.
The show was broadcast in Israel, where the audience picked up that she was a sabra. Interviews and fan mail followed. Now, Fiorella said, she is looking for a sponsor to finance the trip.
On Nov. 5, her 43rd birthday, Fiorella got to show off her trim form at the 25th reunion of her class at Cranford High School. She flew in from Phoenix, where she lives now, and attended the event with Pinhasovich, who lives in Springfield.
She talked to NJ Jewish News about her experience and her dreams going forward. She giggled as she described the reunion and how good it felt to be back with old friends, feeling so good.
“I’m so humbled by what has happened in my life,” she said, turning serious. “I really want to be able to give back, to be able to share what I’ve learned.”
Fiorella came to the United States in 1979 for Pinhasovich’s bris and — to her great distress — her parents decided to stay. The family settled in Cranford, where her parents, Galia and Jeff Landman, still live.
She was so homesick, the only way her father could placate her was to promise she could return to Israel for her summers, which she did year after year. She was a student at the now-defunct Cranford branch of Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union and later at Cranford High; at school and through her involvement with United Synagogue Youth at Temple Beth-El (now Beth-El Mekor Chayim), she made friends and finally settled into American life.
‘I was in denial’
The weight gain came later. As a junior in college, she married an Israeli. They had two children, and she went on to teach Hebrew and Jewish history. They divorced after 11 years. By then, she had doubled her weight.
“People ask how it could happen but I was in denial,” she said. “I kept thinking I’d get it under control.”
A couple of years later, she met Sal Fiorella, an active duty soldier, on an on-line dating site. They both said he was shocked when he saw her, but by then he was too much in love to back off. Over the next seven months, desperate not to lose him and crash-dieting, Merav lost 100 lbs. She had plastic surgery that she described as “disastrous” and within a few years, though very happy with Sal and with a new baby, she gained all the weight back.
“I have a lot of respect for people who are okay with being very overweight — more power to them — but I was never okay. I always felt watched and judged,” she said.
Pinhasovich, meanwhile, weighed over 400 pounds by the time he reached 30.
“Mark’s 11 years younger than me, but we’ve always been very, very close,” she said. “I wanted him to have what I had — a loving relationship and a family, and I knew he wouldn’t let himself get close to anyone with his weight like that.”
The cousins auditioned for the show three times before Pinhasovich made it. In June 2010, just days after Sal had been deployed to Saudi Arabia, Fiorella and her cousin began their saga — he on the Biggest Loser ranch in California, with trainers and fellow competitors, and she alone at home in Phoenix, with her kids to care for.
Fiorella started by undergoing a free food sensitivity test at a local clinic. They warned her off sugar, wheat, dairy, chicken, broccoli, and various other foods. She had her children tested too, because both her sons had attention deficit issues and mood problems. Always a creative cook, she set about making meals that worked for all of them. She began to exercise more and more, swimming, kick-boxing, and walking.
For her boys, she said, “it’s like night and day. They are doing wonderfully.”
When Sal returned in December for a brief home leave, she said, he was speechless at her transformation. And this time, she said, she is confident that she has a firm, healthy foundation that will last.
Fiorella said her cousin has had some health problems brought on by the rapid weight loss, and has been hospitalized twice, but he has sustained the loss and — to her pleasure — become romantically involved. Sal retired from the army a few months ago and is a home-based civilian working with an ROTC program in nearby Globe. The two enjoy kayaking — without capsizing the vessel, she added. She is working with one of the boys Sal met in the ROTC program, helping him trim down enough to join the army.
Sal hasn’t converted to Judaism, but he told NJJN he has happily embraced his wife’s Jewish lifestyle and endorses her determination to share her weight loss lessons here and in Israel.
“She is so busy helping everyone else that she forgets herself,” he wrote in an e-mail. “She is a very special person, and everything she does is a mitzva — and this coming from a goy.”
Now he wants her to have the joy of that trip to Israel. “She speaks of it and her eyes light up,” he wrote. “It is her heart and soul.”