Work has drawn Dr. Ari Shye Eckman away from his roots, and it has brought him back. The recently appointed head of the division of endocrinology, diabetes, and metabolism at Trinitas Regional Medical Center grew up in Elizabeth and attended the city’s Jewish Educational Center schools.
He returned to Elizabeth this summer from Baltimore, Md., where in June he completed a fellowship at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, to fill the post that had been empty for two years. He has also opened a private practice in Elizabeth, dealing with diabetes and thyroid disorders.
“There was a huge void here,” he said, interviewed at Trinitas. “It was too good an opportunity to pass up. It was a perfect fit.”
Eckman and his wife, Nechama, and their four young children have settled near her family in Teaneck, but he has welcomed the chance to serve the community he grew up in — and to be close to his parents. He is the son of historian and Touro professor Dr. Lester Eckman and psychologist Susan Eckman, and the youngest of their three sons. He and his brothers, Israel, also a doctor, and Benjamin, a lawyer, were honored as JEC alumni of the year in 2007.
Diabetes and thyroid problems, he said, are on the rise in the population as a whole, and are particularly prevalent in the local Jewish community. “There is a great deal of obesity, and our lifestyle is conducive to it,” he said.
Eckman said his fascination with the body’s chemistry started when he was a child. “I had an aunt who had acromegaly, a disorder that causes the pituitary gland to produce too much growth hormone. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t realize what it was until I was a teenager, and then I became fascinated by what makes things go right or wrong with the body.”
That interest grew more focused as he completed his undergraduate degree in psychology at Yeshiva University in New York, his master’s degree at Touro College School of Health Sciences in Bayshore, NY, and his medical degree at the Technion Faculty of Medicine in Haifa, Israel. He did his residency in internal medicine at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey Medical School in Newark.
Eckman has a lean, intense look, no doubt partly genetic but also reflective of his commitment to eating in moderation and exercising regularly. “There is no mystery to weight,” he said. “Everything that goes in has to come out. If you don’t burn the calories you consume, you put on weight. If you burn more than you consume, you will lose weight.”
As simple as that sounds, and even as people become better informed by doing their own research on-line, he said, every day he deals with people stumped by that equation. We love abundance, he said, and as Jews, we have a lifestyle that celebrates with food and includes less and less physical labor.
Eckman’s tone grows even more concerned as he talks about children. “When I was a kid, my brothers and I would be outside playing as soon as the sun came up,” he said. “Now, so many kids sit around the house playing video games.” With many women working outside the home, and ready-made foods an easy option, even the activity of cooking has dwindled.
And portion sizes have shot up. “People just aren’t aware of how much they’re eating,” he said. “Bagels are twice the size they used to be. It costs so little to make them bigger, and they can charge far more.”
Eckman doesn’t recommend any radical changes, but what he would like to see is an assessment of consumption like the daily assessment of mitzvot, good deeds, versus sins. You can even cheat now and then. “It’s like making a withdrawal from a bank account,” he suggested. “What you eat is a withdrawal from your allowance for the day, so if you eat something high in calories, know that you have to cut back somewhere else.”
That could mean having water instead of a soda — a change he would like to see far more people make. “You can still have bagels — but have a half, or scoop out the inside and have the crispy crust,” he said. “After Shabbat, go for a stroll with your spouse. Or go walking in groups, with friends. You can shmooze as you walk. If modesty is a problem and a woman isn’t comfortable joining an exercise class, you can do it at home, with an exercise video or DVD on the TV.”
Judaism recommends that things be done in moderation, he said. “We can have alcohol — but in moderation. And we can enjoy Shabbos and yontif meals — but in moderation.”