Mollie Witow hasn’t lost her adventurous spirit.
The 96-year-old decided to take to the sky in August to get a jump on her October birthday. Members of her family, including her daughter and grandchildren, accompanied her to Taylorsville for her first-ever hot-air balloon ride.
Donning black pants and a gray sweater, Bubbie, as her grandchildren call her, arrived at a sun-soaked field in Carroll County. She clutched a gold necklace bearing photos of her late parents.
“I thought I would take them with me,” Witow said. “I’ve done many things in my life, but I’ve never done anything like this. I’m ready to go, no second thoughts.”
Witlow was born in transit shortly after her parents boarded the last train out of Russia during the Russian Civil War. She was 6-weeks-old when she and her parents arrived in the United States on Christmas Day 1920 and settled in Baltimore.
Witlow, the mother of two and grandmother of six, has maintained her community-oriented spirit and active lifestyle, said her daughter,
Alison Witow, of Pikesville. From plays at Everyman Theatre to lectures at the Pre-Columbian Society, Witow doesn’t miss an opportunity to be out and about.
And that’s why Alison wasn’t the least bit surprised when her mother decided to celebrate her birthday with an hour-long ride in a balloon.
“People always say they want to be like my mother when they get older,” Alison said. “And why wouldn’t they? She’s still going.”
Witow had long anticipated her air journey with Sky Candy Ballooning, a family-owned company in Central Maryland. Although fearful that her trip would be canceled due to inclement weather, the Sunday evening proved ideal for ballooning.
Witlow watched as the balloon crew and her grandchildren, Ethan Tucker, 26, and Jordan Tucker, 29, assembled the 80-foot, rainbow-colored balloon. It added a pop of color to the hilly landscape as Ethan, Jordan and his wife, Naomi Pinson, 29, piled into the basket with their bubbie.
“I hope I make it back down in one piece,” Ethan joked. “My bubbie has been dreaming about this, so we’re happy to make her dream come true.”
Alison and other family members hopped in their cars to chase the balloon, driving along winding roads and parking their cars on the shoulder to wave at Witow and the others as they passed overhead.
Sky Candy owner Steven Andrews said Witow is his oldest passenger. Although he considers it a pleasure to welcome each passenger aboard his 120,000-cubic-foot balloon, flying with her was a special privilege, he said.
“It’s amazing to see people her age who still want to get out there and do things in life,” Andrews said. “Ballooning is really about the passengers. We always love to see their enthusiasm, and Bubbie was all smiles.”
Andrews landed the balloon on farmland in Taylorsville belonging to Audra Mercer and her family, who trekked down a hill to watch the crew disassemble the balloon. Mercer, a mother of two, said she never forgot the day a hot-air balloon landed in a field behind her childhood home in Mount Airy, and she helped take it apart.
“It was amazing to see then, and it’s amazing to see now,” she said.
In honor of completing her balloon ride, Witow received a pin etched with the words “First Flight” as well as a balloon-shaped trinket made out of a cork and wire.
“It was everything that I imagined it would be,” Witow said. “It was over all too soon.”
Shana Medel is a reporter for the Baltimore Jewish Times.
Walk into the Speed Strength Performance gym in Rockville and you probably won’t recognize that it is part of one of the fastest-growing trends in the fitness world. You might not know it was a professional gym at all — weights and resistance bands are off to the sides, and there’s a squat rack in the corner, but much of the warehouse-style space is empty.
John Todaro opened the gym last year and business has taken off among athletes and fitness-types who are eschewing the typical gym experience of clustered machines and commotion for something more open, personalized and intimate.
Speed Strength Performance is considered a boutique fitness studio, offering high-intensity training and workouts in a small group setting. And according to a recent report from the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, these gyms now represent about 35 percent of the fitness market, with revenue totaling $81 billion in 2015.
“You can basically take a warehouse and turn it into a world-class gym,” Todaro says.
Brand-name chains like CrossFit and SoulCycle have the most name recognition and market share, but independent businesses like Todaro’s have also become more popular for athletes at the high school, collegiate and professional levels — and the general population as well.
He says Speed Strength Performance shares some commonalities with CrossFit, the extreme regimen that was created in 2000 and has exploded in recent years, but that studios like his do more to tailor to the goals of individual customers.
“This type of gym is more popular than it’s ever been, and we have CrossFit to thank, it’s a great ambassador to this ‘get-after-it’ strength and conditioning,” says Todaro. “But I’ll go to gyms and see what some trainers are doing, and sometimes it’s just not appropriate. Our job is to assess everyone’s ability and take a small-step approach. Even with pro athletes it’s about mastering the basics.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Colin Quay, who runs Elite Athlete Training Services in Rockville. The industry has exploded over the last decade, he says.
That can bring danger when first-timers flock to a new trend without adequate preparation or guidance. A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research cited a rate of 3.1 injuries per 1,000 CrossFit sessions, rivalling that of competitive weightlifting.
“In the last 10 years, you’ve seen a big boom in our industry and a lot more people have gotten into our field,” Quay says. “It brings tons and tons of competition and there’s almost an excessive amount of information out there for the consumer. So, unfortunately, you see a lot of people that might not be ready for it, but get into something because it looks cool and they know people who’ve done it, and they’re finding themselves getting hurt.”
Individual attention can come with a much bigger price tag than your average monthly gym membership. Packages start around $30 per group session at Speed Strength Performance. Whereas big box gyms like Gold’s or Crunch cover their overhead selling passes to hundreds in a single location, small studios only serve a handful of clients at a time. But Todaro says that people are willing to pay for the kind of Division I-level training they may not have gotten in college.
Todaro went into training after growing up in Springfield and playing baseball at Old Dominion University in Norfolk for a time. These high-end studios often train professional and aspiring professional athletes as well, promising their general population customers a similarly-structured program. For him, training was the best way to overcome the frustration of being removed from competitive sports. And with a proliferation of amateur competitive athletic opportunities like extreme races (think “Tough Mudder” or “Spartan Race”), even weekend warriors are looking to train to get better.
For others, there’s the benefit of small group workouts that, as Todaro says, can “take an uncomfortable situation and make it less awkward.” The American College of Sports Medicine says that group exercise can provide any number of psychological benefits, like peer pressure to stick with a program and simple enjoyment that keeps people coming back.
“People enjoy being in that type of sports performance atmosphere,” Quay says. “Not only do they want to look good but they want to move better or they want to perform better when they’re participating in recreational sports. So we might bring a sort of modified version of what we’d do with our athletes.”
And as always, simple vanity is a motivating factor as well. Says Quay, “As a byproduct of that, they’re going to look better too, which never hurts.” n
“You don’t run a marathon if you haven’t trained,” says Washington nutritionist Janet Zalman. “You want to make the day so that your mind can absorb the energy and the real spiritual journey that you’re on. Not, ‘Oh my God, I’m suffering with a headache.’”
And it isn’t only the caffeine. Zalman and other nutritionists say that getting your body ready for an easy fast also means going light on sugar and drinking more water the day before Yom Kippur, which starts at sundown on Sept. 29. Thinking that a big meal beforehand will keep you full longer? Think again.
Washington nutritionist Lisa Himmelfarb says heavy coffee and tea drinkers may want to start abstaining as early as one week in advance to prevent a headache — a common symptom of caffeine withdrawal.
“You can dilute your coffee with decaf,” she suggests. “That will help substantially with the headaches.”
Himmelfarb says it is best to begin weaning yourself off refined sugars — commonly found in candy and desserts like cakes and pies — rather than go cold turkey on the Day of Atonement. She recommends fruits such as melon, because they have a delayed release of water, which helps the body to stay hydrated longer.
Himmelfarb says that many Jews eat a small breakfast and lunch in anticipation of eating a heavy dinner before Kol Nidre.
“That’s a mistake,” she says. “You will actually be hungrier as a result.”
A better choice is to eat a large breakfast full of carbohydrate-rich foods such as apples, bananas and oatmeal, she says.
For dinner, Himmelfarb recommends eating complex carbohydrates such as brown rice and quinoa or proteins such as beef and fish. Some fatty foods like avocado and olive oil are OK as well.
Debbie Amster, an Olney-based culinary and health coach, says that dinner should be the smallest of the three meals eaten before Kol Nidre.
“Even though we’re going to be fasting, it’s very hard to get a good night’s rest when you’ve stuffed yourself at night,” she says. “So in general I’d recommend the smallest meal be dinner.”
That meal should be one without thirst-causing salty foods. Avoid matzah ball soup and go for carbohydrates that release energy over a longer period of time and help steady your blood sugar levels, Zalman says.
“Sweet potato is great because it’s a slow-acting carbohydrate,” she says. “You don’t want to have white potatoes.”
Zalman said she drinks very little wine during the pre-fast dinner because alcohol, like caffeine, dehydrates the body.
Amster recommends drinking a lot of water that day to ensure that the body is hydrated — a must for any fast.
“People can go a pretty long time without eating, but not without drinking, she says.
And after the gates close at the end of Yom Kippur? What’s the healthiest way to break the fast?
Drink water, says Amster. “The first thing we do when we get into the car is to drink some bottled water,” she said.
She also recommends drinking warm tea with your break-the-fast meal to help with digestion and to progress from fruits and vegetables to more substantial foods in the post-holiday meal.
Zalman says her ideal break-the-fast meal would begin with fresh fruit and diluted orange juice, followed by the more filling items.
“What you want to do is not overload your body right away,” she says. “You don’t want to go from fasting to a bagel with whitefish salad.”
All three say that pregnant women and diabetics should use caution if they wish to fast on Yom Kippur. And Himmelfarb has a message to those recovering from eating disorders: consider not fasting.
But the most important piece of advice had less to do with nutrition than it did with making sure the lack of eating and drinking during Yom Kippur does not interfere with the holiday’s spiritual significance.
“Fasting is not a competitive sport,” Amster says. “This is an opportunity to be more mindful about how we’re nourishing our bodies.”
This year, Ilene Silverman’s synagogue found her a match — only it wasn’t a match of the heart, but of the kidney.
The 67-year-old Germantown resident and retired teacher had lived her entire life with one kidney. It had remained healthy until Silverman suffered a debilitating intestinal blockage 12 years ago that was diagnosed only after her organs had begun to shut down.
Her kidney continued to do its work for another decade. But two years ago, Silverman’s doctor gave her the life-altering news — she would need a new kidney.
“For two years, all I did was cry,” she said. She was told the wait for a kidney transplant would be two-to-seven years. More than 90,000 people are on the national kidney transplant waiting list for an organ.
Silverman wasn’t too worried — she had a husband, Allen, two sisters and two children. Surely one of them would be a match. But, for one reason or another, none of them worked out. Her choice was either to wait for the organ donor list to come through or try another way to find a living donor.
“They teach you how to ask for a kidney,” she said about a symposium on dialysis she and Allen attended. “More people may know about my medical history than I would have liked, but what else can you do?”
In January, Silverman posted a letter on Facebook. Again, nothing worked out.
Then, a friend from her Ocean City mahjongg group suggested asking Rabbi Susan Warshaw of Temple Bat Yam in the nearby town of Berlin to forward a letter to congregants about Silverman’s health issue.
The Silvermans, who own a condo in Ocean City, had joined the temple a year earlier.
“I said, ‘Of course, that’s what we do,’” said Warshaw, who sent out the letter later that month. “We try to help people in our community.” To the end of the letter she added her own blessing.
It was this letter that piqued the interest of Rachel White, a 56-year-old Salisbury resident and two-decade member of Temple Bat Yam.
Silverman’s story touched White, especially because her own mother had died of kidney disease. She felt compelled to help.
With full support of her family, White started the process. After filling out the questionnaire from Medstar Georgetown Transplant Institute, the hospital asked if she would have some blood work done and then ashed her have follow-up tests.
White was a match.
“I decided to keep going,” she said. “And as I kept being a match, I just felt like this was something that was meant to be.”
Silverman and White met for the first time in April for a Passover seder at the temple. Silverman cried and took photos of the two of them. The next time they met was June 12, the day before their surgeries.
The surgeries then happened on June 13 — or 613, the number of mitzvot in Judaism — which White said that she and Silverman took as another sign that “all the stars aligned.”
White’s surgery was first thing in the morning while Silverman’s would happen late afternoon.
“Rachel has been nothing less than remarkable,” Silverman said. “She didn’t have any doubts at all. You know, she could have changed her mind to the moment [before surgery], but she didn’t.”
Because White’s blood is O positive, the most common blood type, doctors asked if she and Silverman would participate in a transplant chain, called a paired exchange, and the women agreed. White’s kidney went to Minnesota, then a kidney from Minnesota went to Colorado and a kidney from a 25-year-old in Colorado went to Silverman.
Both Silverman and White are recovering well, and White has returned to work as a social worker for Maryland. The experience has left them “bonded for life,” as Silverman puts it. They’ve seen each other a couple times since the surgery and keep in contact by text.
White is not one for publicity, but hopes that sharing this story will inspire others to consider donating.
As for Silverman, she said she’ll never be able to repay White. “What do you get someone who gave you the gift of life?” she said.
“I’m nothing less than blessed,” she added. “I know how lucky I am.”
It may have been the quickest wedding in modern Jewish history, but the nuptials of Avi Steinberg and Rachel Dixon certainly didn’t take away from the love-is-in-the-air theme surrounding last week’s Maccabiah Games opening ceremonies. If anything, the hastily performed union, believed to be the first in the quadrennial games’ history of opening productions, was the festivities’ crowning achievement.
The drama, which is still viewable online thanks to a YouTube recording made by the bride’s aunt, began toward the end of the July 6 ceremonies at Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium when an announcer called Steinberg, an ice hockey player from Canada, to the stage. He told the audience how proud he was to be in Israel with his girlfriend, Dixon, who had — only a week before — completed her conversion to Judaism.
Dixon quickly joined her beau, who promptly got down on one knee and proposed. Some prodding by the female announcer convinced Dixon to get married right then and there. The couple retreated backstage and after a brief interlude — during which a coterie of female performers, all bedecked in wedding dresses, took their positions as a singer entertained the crowd, and a rabbi and a chuppah appeared — emerged in white dress and tuxedo. The next couple of minutes whirled by as the rabbi, Avi Poupko, instructed Steinberg on placing a ring on Dixon’s finger and issuing the traditional marriage declaration, had Dixon give her groom a ring, and quickly recited the seven blessings over a cup of wine.
Viewers would be forgiven for considering the whole thing a tad staged, and according to the couple and their rabbi — a friend from their shared days in Montreal — everything but the chuppah was indeed planned from the beginning. Steinberg and Dixon were engaged and had their wedding previously scheduled to take place this week.
Getting married at the opening ceremonies was a surprise only for Dixon.
But beyond being a touching moment for newlyweds embarking on a shared life together, the wedding — which took place the same day that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shelved a controversial bill that would have granted a monopoly to the haredi Orthodox-controlled Chief Rabbinate on determining the rights of converts to make aliyah — has become something of a statement in the fiery debate over religious pluralism in Israel.
“The outpouring of love and support has been downright outrageous and endless,” Steinberg said by email on Tuesday, between rounds of sightseeing with his new bride. “Given that it often feels like most headlines are negative, it feels so great to have contributed to creating news that awakened love and joy in so many people.
“The aim was to light a spark,” he continued, “but I just never expected it to catch fire.”
Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which has joined other non-Orthodox movements and Diaspora Jewish organizations in battling Netanyahu’s government over personal status issues and blocking a plan to grant official recognition to an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, remarked on Facebook that “this is what pluralistic Judaism looks like.”
After the weekend, Wernick, through his assistant, qualified his sentiment, given that Poupko is an Orthodox rabbi.
“Rabbi Wernick is thrilled for the couple,” said the assistant. His statement, “in the current climate in Israel concerning conversion and the Kotel, was meant as irony.”
But for many of the attendees who witnessed the wedding in real time, that it was an Orthodox ceremony was not abundantly clear. There was no ketubah given to the bride and Poupko was not identified as Orthodox. Poupko, who is Orthodox and who was, prior to making aliyah, for a couple of years the Hillel rabbi at Harvard University, said later that the ketubah was signed by the groom earlier in a hotel room and that the compressed nature of the ceremony was mandated by the producers trying to keep a production on schedule.
It was the producers, said Steinberg, who first came up with the idea of having his wedding telecast live throughout Israel.
For his part, Poupko said that he didn’t intend for people to see politics in the celebration, but he didn’t exactly complain about that, either.
“It went well with the overall message of the Maccabiah Games, which at the end of the day is about Jewish unity,” said the rabbi. “And what better way to recognize and celebrate Jewish unity than to feature a new Jewish couple, from a different place, coming together and celebrating a Jewish home?”
It helped that the couple were not making aliyah and were not getting married as Israelis.
“They’re only here for a couple of weeks,” noted Poupko. Had they made aliyah, then any wedding in Israel would have had to have been done under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate, a process that for a convert — even one, like Dixon, who underwent an Orthodox conversion — can drag on for weeks and months.
“It was a nice wedding,” said Rabbi Reuven Poupko, the officiant’s Montreal-based father and the rabbi who presided over Dixon’s conversion. “The intent was not to make any kind of statement, as the ambush of the bride was planned before the [conversion] legislation was proffered in the Knesset.”
Still, the elder Poupko has a solution that would make weddings like Steinberg’s and Dixon’s more commonplace: Take the Israeli government out of the religion business.
“The Orthodox establishment in Israel seems to go out of its way to put the worst face of Judaism forward, and often act without regard to the long-term consequences of their actions and rhetoric,” he said. “Nobody who cares about Judaism and holds it sacred wants it debated in the Knesset.
“Those countries that have entangled government authority with religion have ended up with empty churches,” added Reuven Poupko. “You need only go to Italy or Quebec, where I live. The entanglement of religion and state tends to sully both.”
For all of his happiness that Dixon and Steinberg got to celebrate with tens of thousands of people, Reuven Poupko did have one complaint of the wedding, however.
“I was disappointed there was no food,” he said. “I mean, nobody got to eat anything. What kind of a wedding is that?”
Joshua Runyan is the senior editorial director of Mid-Atlantic Media, which publishes Washington Jewish Week.