When I’m able, I sneak away from my life as a congregational rabbi to engage in another kind of holy work. In my calendar I’ve labeled the hour I’m away from my desk as “sacred work(out).” Even though I’ve been showing up for almost two years, I’m always intimidated. Everyone looks like they know what they’re doing. They all wear matching garb. After my nerves wear off I settle into my seat, take a deep breath, close my eyes, and before I know it, the voice at the front of the room comes alive. Why are you here today? What do you want to leave behind? Set an intention…and let’s go.
I open my eyes and even though it sounds like I’m in an ashram or shul, I’m in a spin class. For 45 minutes there are no distractions – phones are strictly forbidden, as is speaking. Singing is encouraged, and the music ranges from electronic club, to hip-hop, to the newest love ballad remixed over a steady beat–and that is the only goal of the class – to follow the beat.
50 of us move in unison, matching the instructor’s movements. There is no competition or judgment. Every experienced rider was once new; every teacher was once a rider. The instructor guides us with a myriad of words–choreography, body positioning guidance, personal encouragement, and a motivational frame that guides from the first to last song. In the best classes, it feels like communal prayer. There is an arc, an intentional build up of energy and emotion until we reach a place where we can connect most deeply with ourselves, maybe even with something higher.
Halfway through the class, I am doubting myself again. Why am I here today? I could be at work, reading one of dozens of books on my reading list, on the phone with an old friend, or praying, the way I was taught in rabbinical school. Jewish prayer has always felt accessible; I take comfort in my belief in God, and my ability to use prayer when I am in need of guidance, strength, and support. But unlike a service, when I’m on the bike, I can’t stop. I can’t close the book and return to the onslaught of email and social media. The spin studio has an eerie silence. Once in awhile you hear a soft cry, more often you hear the sigh of heavy breathing.
Like the prayer services I lead on Friday nights and Saturday mornings, the class has a place for silent reflection and meditation. In class it is the penultimate song. After a few words of intention, the instructor dims the lights until the room is almost pitch black. My legs go around and around. I try and let go of what feels heavy in my life and let the strength I am building re-fill the empty space that the heaviness used to occupy. I ask myself why am I here today?
Some instructors end with a communal namastae or sat nam, but all ask that we take the strength that we built in class and use it to fuel us until the next time we find ourselves on a bike. Some people place their hands on their hearts or in a prayer position and bow their heads in gratitude to the instructor or themselves. Maybe even to something greater.
When I return to my office, I am equally tired and energized. I go back to my emails and projects. But in those 45 dark, sweaty, exhausting minutes, I am broken open and made whole again. I am a better rabbi and a better human being for experiencing them. I am more aware and grateful for the moments that I am given every day. And most of all, I am anxiously excited for the next time I will find myself engaged in my sacred work-out, back on the bike for another spin.
Karen Perolman is the associate rabbi at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, NJ. Ordained in 2010 by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Karen credits her involvement with NFTY, URJ Camp Harlam, and the Maryland Hillel community with her desire to pursue the rabbinate, including a pivotal summer traveling with the NFTY in Israel program. Karen is a voracious reader which fuels her passion to understand the intersections between food, politics, Judaism, feminism and social justice. She can be found on twitter @rabbikrp.