Exercise classes for the matriarchs

In traditional Arab society, the men in the community meet in coffee houses to socialize over shesh besh and coffee while their wives remain inside the home, taking care of their families.

However, lifestyles are undergoing a change. In Arab villages throughout Israel, a number of day centers have been established where women – as well as men – can meet and participate in a range of activities outside the home. One activity, an innovation in Arab society, is an exercise class, where older women, the matriarchs of the family, learn the value of keeping their muscles and joints flexible.

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The classes are the initiative of Miriam Wrobel, a dance teacher with many years’ experience. Through her volunteer work with Soroptimist, an international organization that seeks to improve the lives of women and girls worldwide, she attended a course at Givat Haviva, the Center for a Shared Society, in Pardes Hana.

“In the course, I met some highly educated, professional Arab men, who, now retired, are trying to improve life for the people in their villages,” says Wrobel. “One innovation was setting up day centers for the elderly, like those in the Jewish communities, where both men and women can come – on separate days – for lectures and other activities.

“So I asked if there were exercise classes and offered to teach a class for women.”

In the village of Ara, in the Haifa district, weekly classes take place in a large hall. At one end, the women gather to chat and drink tea and coffee. Initially, only a few women ventured to the other end of the room for the class.

“The Arab women of the older generation of are not used to doing any type of sport,” explains Wrobel. “It’s considered immodest and in the beginning, they were self-conscious and embarrassed. But gradually, over time, they began to appreciate the positive impact sport can have on their health.”

She continues, “So many elderly people in the villages are walking around in pain because their joints are stiff. My first task was to help them understand why they need to strengthen their muscles and loosen up their joints. I also work on their ankles to improve balance and prevent falls.”

About 12 women attended Wrobel’s first few classes. Most of the women sat at the other end of the room, drinking tea or coffee.

Today, some three years later, the women are feeling less restrained and there are more women in the class – around 30 – than those chatting at the other end of the room.

Most of the exercises are performed on chairs. Using a method developed by Wrobel, the women work primarily with resistance bands. She demonstrates the task and describes in Hebrew how to perform it while an interpreter, usually the center’s coordinator, translates her instructions into Arabic.

Exercising with resistance bands Currently, there are no women in the Arab sector who are qualified to teach the class.

Wrobel’s ambition is to train Arab women to be sports teachers, who would then help to expand the exercise program for the elderly in villages all over Israel.

The program will continue in 2018. In addition to Ara, Wrobel is also teaching in places like Musmus and Musheirifa, but classes are still very much in the beginning stages in those locations and the local council has not yet approved a budget.

“It’s a process,” says Wrobel. “I believe that in the next five years, every village in Israel will have exercise classes for both men and women.”

There is a Soroptimist International branch in Jerusalem, also.