‘From Flab To Fab’: Kosher Style Fitness


Year after year, the No. 1 New Year’s resolution people make is to lose weight. And, according to Time magazine, it’s also the No. 1 broken resolution. Great intentions in January fall by the wayside and, come spring, warmer weather and lighter clothes remind us of those forgotten winter goals.

One effective way to jump start the path toward fitness is through a weight-loss getaway like the one at the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center. Last month, a week after Passover, the Center opened its doors to a unique retreat: a one to two-week kosher weight-loss camp for grownups called “From Flab to Fab.”

Located on a lake in the northwest corner of Connecticut in the Berkshires, the center has been offering Jewish-oriented programs, from senior camps to science weeks for middle school students, for over 50 years. Executive Director David Weisberg, who joined the staff at the center almost a year ago, has wanted to expand the programs offered. “I began to look at what niches the Center would be ideally situated to fit,” he says. “I need to lose some weight myself, and I looked at whether there were any other resources for adult observant Jews looking to go to weight-loss camp. There were no other options throughout North America.”

Several Google searches reveal this to be the case. “There are not that many adult weight-loss camps in general,” Weisberg asserts. One of the few is Wellspring in California, where Isabella Freedman dietitian Dan Fenyvesi has worked. Wellspring primarily has programs for teens and young adults, though it does have one for those over 25. People attend for two-week or longer sessions.

Fenyvesi will be the resident nutritionist in charge of the food aspect of the Kosher Weight-loss and Fitness: A Plan for Your Life retreat. His brother, Shamu Fenyvesi Sadeh, runs Adamah at the Isabella Freedman Center, an organic farm that has been in operation on the property for several years. The farm offers a fellowship program for Jewish young adults, supplies the kitchen with fresh produce, and also makes products such as pickles and goat cheese (there’s a herd of goats) sold at area farm markets.

When Dan Fenyvesi would visit his brother, he was struck by how ideal the location would be for a Jewish Wellspring-like retreat. “Wellspring is a total immersion environment,” Fenyvesi says. “That’s why it’s so effective. Our retreat will also be total immersion. We’ll be able to make a really big impact on participants’ lives. Of course having everyone all be of the same faith, there for another reason, not just for their health, that helps as well. I wanted to do this in a Jewish setting because there are no kosher weight-loss facilities, and I believe that the kosher laws open a fascinating discussion over rules around eating.”

With Fenyvesi lined up for the culinary component, the center turned to Ari Weller for the fitness end. As anyone who has ever tried to lose weight knows, exercise is a key part of the picture. Weller is a highly regarded physical trainer in New York – and the former associate director of the Freedman Center. On his website, he describes his technique, Integrative Movement, as “a complete training philosophy resulting in total physical fitness and a mind/body awareness.”

Doreen Bongiolatti, program coordinator, has been synchronizing the various components since the project was approved last fall. “The date was a big meeting in itself,” she says of the center’s decision to schedule the program. “Ari Weller said this is the time of year to do it. People make their New Year’s resolution to lose weight, but it’s not till the summer comes that they start to think about losing the layers.”

Chef Richard Neff (who started his career cooking for Vietnamese refugees) has been working more and more with local produce, including that from Adamah. The facility is supervised kosher—and nondenominational. Weisberg notes that several groups with strict affiliations have used the Center. “There’s probably no single place that has such participation from the Jewish community,” he says. “Orthodox, Chabad, Reconstructionist, Renewal, Jewish multiracial, Jewish LGBT — an incredibly broad cross section of the Jewish community participates in Isabella Freedman programs during the course of the year.”

The religious component of the weight-loss program is still evolving. Shabbat services will be held on Friday nights and Saturday mornings in the center’s airy onsite synagogue. “Jewish elements will be woven throughout,” says Weisberg. “Some classes will be taught by members of the staff. We want to give a better understanding of the covenant we have when it comes to taking care of our own bodies.”

Fenyvesi, who is a registered dietician, has personal experience with gaining and losing weight. In grad school, while he was studying nutrition, he says, “I ended up, ironically, gaining a ton of weight. I was in the library studying all the time, the stress of working, student loans. I struggled for a couple years getting rid of that 30 to 40 pounds, and realize how hard it is.”

One week, or even two, won’t lead to instant, or dramatic weight-loss, but Fenyvesi hopes to offer attendees a toolkit they can bring home with them. “This is not a lose weight fast program; it’s not a detox or fasting or juices/colonics. It’s all very practical and science-based,” he says. “People will lose some weight over the week, yes — five to 10 pounds perhaps. But it’s not so important what they lose that week; what’s important is that they learn tools to take home and continue with weight-loss. A key factor is adjusting the taste buds, and one week is enough to start significant modification of tastes and expectations around meals.”

And what better way to do it than in a bucolic setting with fresh-cooked, nutritious recipes, plus outdoor activities like hiking and biking, while contemplating the connections of food, body, and Judaism? As Amy Hannes, director of marketing, says, “It’s a wonderful opportunity for people to combine a practical approach to nutrition with a spiritual approach to nourishment.”

For more information, please visit isabellafreedman.org