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RELIGION : Aerobics for the Soul as Well as the Body

March 24, 1994|JOSEPH HANANIA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Aliza Dubin is not your run-of-the-mill aerobics instructor. She teaches "frumaerobics," Yiddish for pious aerobics. That means leading women through step workouts and sit-ups in a way that does not conflict with Orthodox Jewish beliefs.

Mainstream aerobics classes focus almost exclusively on achieving weight reduction and a Twiggy-like body, says Dubin, a West Los Angeles resident. "Their attention is completely on the physical," she says. "But we say there's something more to us than just our bodies. We believe the body is the temple of the soul."

To nurture that soul, she says, the body must be fit--but not flaunted. So, observing Orthodox Jewish custom, many of the women in Dubin's classes expose only their faces and necks, wearing sweat suits and, in some cases, head scarves.

The students appreciate Dubin's approach.

Elissa Lorber, a 40-year-old medical researcher, said she signed up after tiring of gyms "where everyone is always showing off their buns of steel, looking in mirrors, and rippling their muscles."

Dubin, a 29-year-old mother of two, sees her occupation as the culmination of a spiritual journey that began seven years ago in Toronto. There, while studying for a nursing career she didn't really want, she decided to apply for a six-week fellowship to study religion and spirituality at Aish Hatorah, a Jewish outreach program in Jerusalem.

After the program ended, Dubin settled in Jerusalem, began living an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle and married a rabbinical student from New Jersey. Soon, however, she again began feeling depressed. She didn't speak the language; her parents, she said, were "shocked" at her Orthodox ways; and she felt too restless to settle down to life as a wife and mother.

But just over two years ago, when her husband, Chaim, accepted a rabbinical position in Los Angeles, she moved to California. Within weeks, Dubin joined a small, conventional aerobics class in West Los Angeles run by Deana Martin, daughter of actor Dean Martin, and found herself rapidly rising from wallflower to top student.

When Martin bowed out of teaching last year, Dubin started her own classes, offering them at her apartment near Pico and Doheny.

Soon, the classes reflected her Orthodox beliefs and those of her neighborhood's predominantly Jewish population. While the aerobic exercises themselves remained largely the same, the students' dress became more conservative.

Under Orthodox Jewish tradition, women in mixed company may expose only their faces and necks; arms beneath the elbows, and legs beneath the knees. Stricter interpretations require married women to cover their hair, except when they are alone or with their husbands. Thus, Dubin--like some of her students--exercises wearing a wig or a head scarf.

Dubin now leads nine classes a week, with each of the hour-plus sessions consisting of four to 10 Jewish women doing step aerobics and sit-ups on her hardwood floors.

Some of Dubin's students are not Orthodox Jews but nevertheless enjoy working out with other Jewish women. Lorber, for instance, says the classes do not serve a spiritual purpose for her but the religious bond she shares with other students "makes me feel more comfortable."

Dubin says she has at last discovered her forte--helping Jewish women feel good about themselves, helping them to become "whole." Meanwhile, she's saving up class fees to help her and her husband buy a house when they eventually transfer back to Jerusalem. There, she says, she hopes to continue teaching "frumaerobics."

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