"We have to change the culture.... It's a challenge," he said.
Strajcher (pronounced Striker) tells the group he's been overweight since childhood.
"When I was growing up, no doctor or teacher ever mentioned my weight," he said. "I am reaping the result of all those years."
He is not alone. In fact, Strajcher's students are even more likely to struggle with weight issues. According to the Institute of Medicine, an agency under the National Academy of Sciences, more than 9 million U.S. children above the age of 6 are considered overweight or obese. The litany of health consequences associated with obesity -- diabetes, cancer and heart disease, to name a few -- might result in today's children becoming the first generation in American history with a lower life expectancy than their parents. For children born in 2000, their lifetime risk of developing diabetes exceeds 30 percent.
Many can name factors contributing to these alarming trends: An increase in sedentary activities, such as television and computers; greater demand for convenience foods; advertisements targeting kids with high-fat foods, and an environment that discourage walking and physical activity. Given the breadth of the problem, solutions require action on all levels of society -- from government and business to schools and families. Jewish day schools, which may not see their role in the equation, have been slow to address these concerns.
But some have begun to take action.
Let's Get Physical
At Jewish day schools, the demands of a dual curriculum coupled with limited outdoor space can cause physical education to take a back seat. This is decidedly not the case at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) Day School. When Head of School Sheva Locke joined the Encino school four years ago, one of her first priorities was instituting an athletic program. The school now employs an athletic director and two full-time coaches who supervise physical education classes and activities at recess and lunch.
The athletic department also runs an extensive after-school team sports program. Kindergarteners through third-graders can join in a Junior Sports Club, while fourth- through sixth-graders can participate in competitive sports, including basketball, soccer, football and volleyball -- and 98 percent of them do. The teams compete in the San Fernando Valley Private School League. VBS provides transportation to off-site games to make participation easier on parents and children.
"The focus was on getting as many children as possible to participate and to play," Locke said. "The problem solving and goal setting that goes along with having a physical fitness program is equally as important."
During the school day itself, VBS provides physical education twice a week, a figure fairly standard in the day school world. For students who don't participate in after-school physical activities, that amount is woefully inadequate, according to physician Fran Kaufman, professor of pediatrics at USC's Keck School of Medicine and head of the Center for Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism at Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles."
"Kids should be active for 60 minutes each day," she said.
The state of California requires that children in first through sixth grade have a minimum of 200 minutes of physical education time per 10 days of school, which averages 20 minutes per day. In seventh through 12th grade, the time requirement doubles. (According to the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, 51 percent of school districts reviewed failed to meet the state's minimum requirement for physical education time.)
Those numbers fall far short of the 60 minutes daily recommended by Kaufman and the USDA's Dietary Guidelines for Americans. And as Emek's Strajcher points out, not all of that time involves being active.
"Even when kids are supposedly playing, how much of that time is spent waiting for a turn?" he asks.
At Maimonides Academy in West Hollywood, instructor Alan Rosen has designed a unique program where lessons on character and values are integrated into physical education. On the play area used by the elementary school students, circles painted on the blacktop list such values as responsibility, humility, effort and cooperation. The words are incorporated into songs and games, and are referred to in the course of regular physical activities.
"If it's important, you find the time," said Maimonides' principal, Rabbi Karmi Gross. "Physical activity doesn't have to be divorced from what else is being done."
By the Book
Inside the classroom, the content and amount of wellness-related curriculum varies from school to school. An informal survey taken by the Bureau of Jewish Education of Los Angeles on nutrition education garnered responses from only 10 schools out of more than 30. Of those, half had no "formal" nutrition curriculum, and relied primarily on teacher-generated materials.
Because health is not a subject for which the state requires standardized testing, public school districts vary in the degree of emphasis they give the topic. Los Angeles Unified School District specifies knowledge and abilities that students are expected to master in grades four, seven, and high school.
In both public and private schools, a dedicated health class is generally taught in middle school. Seventh graders at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge take a health and life sciences class that focuses on the physiology and biology of the human body. An eighth-grade nutrition unit includes a screening of the school version of "Super Size Me," in which the filmmaker traced his odyssey eating McDonald's fare exclusively three times a day for one month, and how his body suffered as a result.
"We talk about individual choices and about society, and we discuss where responsibility lies," said science teacher Liz Wenger. "We look at how society is changing the way we eat, such as not eating at home as much, and eating larger quantities and higher fat foods."
The students calculate their own caloric intake and use a calorimeter to measure the amount of food energy in various foods. They also build pumps to replicate the heart and use stoppers to illustrate cholesterol build-up.
VBS employs a full-time nurse whose duties include teaching health-related lessons to all grade levels. At Milken Community High School, ninth graders take a class, designed with input from a health educator and a rabbi, which explores physical, social and emotional health as well as sexuality and tobacco, drug and alcohol abuse.
Ess, Ess Mein Kind
Learning about nutrition doesn't necessarily translate into action. Most of the schools interviewed expressed concerns about the food they provided to students, not only through formal meal programs, but also informal means such as class parties or incentives.
Eating can be an emotionally charged issue given its integral role in Jewish practice. The ubiquity of food is illustrated in the oft-repeated definition of Jewish holidays:
They tried to kill us. We survived. Let's eat."Every time we celebrate, we celebrate with food -- and there's nothing wrong with that," said Emek's Strajcher. The question is what kind of food and how much. He said that traditionally, when students began to learn the aleph-bet (Hebrew alphabet) in school, the rebbe would put a drop of honey on each letter so that the children would associate learning with sweetness. Even in the synagogue itself, congregants throw candy for auf-rufs (engagements), bar mitzvahs and other celebrations.
Some parents are troubled by the amount of sugary snacks given to their children.
Kaufman noted that packaged kosher snacks can be some of the worst offenders in terms of saturated fat content.
Last year, Emek parents formed a committee and worked with the school's caterer and a nutritionist to improve the healthfulness of school lunches. Parent Amy Leibowitz, who spearheaded the committee, said it was a challenge to satisfy nutritional, budgetary and kashrut considerations simultaneously. The results included adding fruit and salad, subtracting dessert, serving foods that are baked instead of fried, serving leaner, lower-salt meat, and making water available at mealtimes. She said that classes now celebrate all the month's birthdays at one time to limit the influx of sugary treats.
Maimonides also revised its lunch program, and modified the practice of using food as an incentive. Instead of giving Israeli chocolates as rewards, principal Gross now gives Israeli postcards.
"We're not yet where we want to be," he said. "But we'll eventually get there." Vending machine soft drink sales -- a tempting source of revenue for some schools -- will likely decline due to a decision announced in May by the nation's largest beverage distributors to discontinue selling beverages with more than 100 calories to schools. It is estimated that the practice will affect 87 percent of the public and private school market.
As schools grapple with decisions regarding food policies, Emek's Strajcher says that they can look to Judaism for a model of dietary self control.
"Kashrut [shows us that] when it comes to food, there has to be a certain discipline," he said.
And as Eileen Horowitz, principal at Temple Israel of Hollywood, noted, "The [mission] for a Jewish school is teaching how to make good choices. That applies to how we talk to a neighbor as well as what we put in our mouth."
Just Do It
Some administrators cited the challenge of fitting in adequate time for physical activity and comprehensive health education on top of an already full dual curriculum.
"There's tremendous pressure for time," acknowledged Dr. Roxie Esterle, Heschel's associate head of school. "It's a very full day and it gets fuller and fuller," she said, mentioning computers and technology as examples.
Secular schools also struggle with these issues. A recently released national report found that the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was threatening physical education time because subjects that are not tested -- including physical education -- receive lower priority. In Los Angeles, 68 percent of high school students failed to meet recommended levels of physical activity according to a 2005 study by the CDC.
Yet, practicality dictates that schools take action on this issue: The California Department of Education states that healthy, active and well-nourished children are more likely to attend school and are more prepared and motivated to learn. The 2006 Shape of the Nation Report, issued jointly by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education and the American Heart Association, recommends that schools across the country "make physical education instruction the cornerstone of a comprehensive school physical activity program that also includes health education, elementary school recess, after-school physical activity clubs and intramurals, high school interscholastic athletics, walk/bike to school programs and staff wellness programs."
Given that Judaism mandates the care of our bodies, Jewish day schools have an imperative to address these issues.
"If you're not healthy, it's hard to serve God with fullness," Strajcher said. "Your soul can only do what it needs to do when your physical self is intact." He hopes to spare his students from facing the weight issues that have plagued him since childhood, and from the dire consequences which may result.
"If this is preventable and we can do something about it, it's our obligation to do so," he said.
Health Report Card for Schools
To determine how well your school promotes wellness, here are some questions to ask:
- How much physical education time is allotted?
- Is the physical education instructor certified?
- Are children actively engaged during physical education and recess?
- Does the school offer after-school activities or team sports?
- Do health lessons address nutrition and physical activity?
- What is the content of school lunches, and who determines this?
- Are fresh fruits and vegetables offered daily?
- Does the school have a policy on desserts and snacks?
- Is there a vending machine on campus? What does it offer?