Chefs Rida Astteeyr and Zion Abu-Hazera teach the Israeli Palestinian weight loss group how to cook
Photo: Debbie Zimelman
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For their initial meeting in October, the women of group six navigate the narrow streets and alleyways of Jerusalem to Prophets Street, near the de facto seam between the traditionally Arab east side where the majority of Palestinians live and the predominantly Jewish Israeli western neighborhoods. Most of the participants live in Jerusalem, although in other groups some have traveled from the West Bank—where the Palestinians must obtain special permits to cross through Israeli roadblocks. As they near their destination, the women follow a milky limestone wall, push open a heavy green iron gate, and enter a cloistered garden oasis on the grounds of a private school. There, amid purple bougainvillea and tangerine trees where Lawrence of Arabia once sipped afternoon tea, they find refuge.

After writing down their goals for the course, they play a quick icebreaker game, standing shoulder to shoulder and tossing a ball to one another as they call out their names. Khoury, who is codirector of Slim Peace and fluent in English and Hebrew as well as her native Arabic, always works with an Israeli facilitator. "This is not a Palestinian program. It's not an Israeli program. It's a program by women and for women," Khoury says, reminding them that they are now on neutral ground.

Next she instructs everyone to jot down a story that relates to food and tell it to the person sitting next to her; that woman will then share it with the group. "'I eat when I'm anxious. Especially chocolate,'" says Pearl Landsman, 62, an Israeli artist and holistic healer, relaying the words of Palestinian Hadil Mussa.

Mussa's dark brown eyes are fixed firmly on the floor as Landsman speaks for her. When she looks up around the circle, women nod and send her encouraging smiles. She smiles back.

Khoury then gives a talk about the value of whole grains and the challenges of social eating. Both societies, she says, suffer from rising rates of obesity. In the Palestinian diet, whole-fat dairy products, shawarma, and oriental sweets tend to be fattening. For Israeli women, high-calorie snacks and heavy family meals over the Sabbath can add on the pounds. But like women everywhere, this group is dealing with issues that cut deeper than calorie control. "Especially for the Palestinians, there is social pressure now to be thin, and many women are devastated," says Khoury. "Some are getting verbal abuse from their husbands or are on the verge of divorce because they cannot lose weight."

Leaving the first meeting, Shoshana Aharoni, 62, a soft-spoken retired nursery school teacher whose parents both lost family in the Holocaust, stumbles on a step and bruises her leg. Three of the Palestinian women rush to assist her. "They took me home in their car—to come to a Jewish neighborhood, no less—and it was hard to say goodbye," Aharoni says later. "Here they were, three Palestinian women, and I thought on the one hand I should feel afraid of them. It was a very special experience."

Such simple but profound moments punctuate the sessions as they unfold with weekly weigh-ins (accompanied by collective groans) and the turning in of food diaries for Khoury's feedback. Mussa decides to cut out all sweets. Pearl Koelewyn, 53, an Orthodox Jew and mother of five, stops using cream in her coffee. In the name of increasing activity levels—and with 10,000 steps a day suggested as a goal—the women have also been given pedometers, which end up becoming a running (if only!) joke.

As a reminder, always consult your doctor for medical advice and treatment before starting any program.

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