Rabbi Jaymee Alpert at her previous synagogue in New York
Rabbi Jaymee Alpert at her previous synagogue in New York

New South Bay rabbi mixes physical fitness with spiritual fitness

A change in rabbinical leadership at Congregation Beth David could mean the jogging paths and gyms around Saratoga will be getting a lot more crowded.

That’s because the incoming senior rabbi, Jaymee Alpert, is a co-creator of Neshama Body and Soul, a practice that combines prayer with exercise, and she also teaches a weekly boxing class at a gym near her current synagogue in New York.

Alpert, who has spent the last 13 years at Congregation Kneses Tifereth Israel in Port Chester, New York, will be taking over at Beth David on Aug. 1, replacing Rabbi Philip Ohriner, who is leaving the Conservative synagogue after eight years.

Ohriner and his wife, Rabbi Shoshana Ohriner, are developing a permaculture-based farmstead in the Los Gatos area. The farm will be dedicated to Jewish and secular environmental education and community organizing focused on food justice.

Alpert, 44, has been leading Neshama sessions about once a month for the past couple of years at her KTI synagogue, attracting a core group of participants (sometimes on Friday nights) ranging from preteens to seniors. Neshama integrates prayer and sacred text with various forms of strength training, such as pushups and squats, as well as meditation and jogging or walking.

“A few years ago, I read an article about a therapist who would take her clients walking or jogging in Central Park, and I started to think about what that might do for prayer,” Alpert told J. “I worked with a personal trainer to create a worship experience that includes exercise as well as prayer taken from traditional liturgy.

“It helps people connect with various parts of themselves. The truth is we’re just one being inhabiting the same body and soul, so this helps make that connection.”

Bill Beyda, board president at Beth David, said Alpert’s open-minded approach will help in the synagogue’s efforts to be accessible to a large swath of the community.

I worked with a personal trainer to create a worship experience that includes exercise as well as prayer.

“Rabbi Alpert has developed her own alternative practices, so that really spoke to us, not that we expect all of our congregants to try exercise services,” Beyda said. “We want to meet people where they are in their spiritual journey — some sitting in synagogue, others on a yoga mat. She’s a perfect fit for Northern California.”

“Young people across the country seem to affiliate at lower and lower rates at traditional synagogues,” he added. “Part of our strategy to attract more young people to our community is to reach them with offerings that are meaningful to them, and often that will mean more than the traditional service.”

Alpert, whose husband is an executive for the New York-based Regional News Network, said she was attracted to Beth David in part by the “spirit of innovation and collaboration” in the Bay Area and a resistance to accepting the status quo. One adjustment the couple won’t be making, though, is in their sports allegiances.

Alpert and her husband, Danny Kischel, both grew up in the Boston area and are devoted fans of the Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots, and Kischel was the Red Sox’s video production manager for nearly six years starting in 2000. During their years in New York, neither succumbed to pressure to become fans of the Yankees or Jets, so it’s unlikely they’ll be adopting the Giants or 49ers as their favorite teams anytime soon.

Alpert, who for the last two years also has been teaching a boxing class at A.P.E. Fitness in Port Chester, is far more than just a jock and a sports fan. She was valedictorian when she received her master’s in Jewish education from Hebrew College, just outside of Boston, in 1998, after getting her bachelor’s degree in French language and literature from Brandeis University.

She also earned a master’s in Jewish women’s studies from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 2006, three years after she was ordained there. While studying at JTS, she was a cantorial soloist and a chaplain at Beth Israel Hospital in New York.

While at KTI, a Conservative congregation, she has participated in interfaith dialogue and served as chaplain for the Port Chester fire and police departments, a role that has included everything from talking with at-risk youngsters to providing pastoral counseling for officers dealing with the aftermath of tragedy. Alpert said she hopes to do similar community service in the Bay Area.

Beyda said Alpert’s focus on interfaith social action also appealed to the board at Beth David, and he said he’ll commit to trying Neshama — though “I’m going to have to do the low-grade version, the introductory class,” he said with a laugh.

Alpert said she realizes her prayer and workout program will not appeal to everyone.

“I think the people who come really love it. They’re getting something they don’t get at the gym or at a traditional service,” she said. “At first it will not replace the traditional Friday night service, but I would love to offer it on a regular basis and see how people respond to that.”

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.