Sue Freedman with Makarem Awad in the Israeli/Palestinian weight loss group
Photo: Debbie Zimelman
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It's December 3, the seventh session. And the women are agitated. The day before, just a few blocks away, a Palestinian man was stabbed—a grim reminder of the violence that plagues the city. Jaffa Road, which runs parallel to Prophets Street, has seen its share of exploding buses. And terrorists have started plowing bulldozers into cars and pedestrians as a weapon of attack.

Once settled in the cocoon of their classroom, the women relax. By now they are greeting each other with warm hellos, standing closer together and clasping each other's hands as they inquire about work, health, and children. At one point, sitting down in a circle again, they discuss the relationship each had with food as a girl. Koelewyn speaks about her overweight mother, who took diet pills, making her a "nervous wreck, which she took out on me." Koelewyn blames her mother's behavior for some of her own poor habits, like waiting to eat until she is starving and then tearing into food.

Landsman, the holistic healer, who is known in the group for her warmth and quick smile, says she was sickly as a young child and had no appetite. "But by age 10 I was obese."

Suddenly her low, velvety voice seems to sink an octave: "I have no memories of food," she says. "I am a rape survivor, from my father."

The room falls silent.

"Most of my issues with food are about protection," she continues.

Many of the women have tears in their eyes as they embrace her afterward and ask how she made it through.

As the group gathers for the final session in late January, they can't ignore the political tensions. During the five-week break to observe the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish holidays, war has erupted in Gaza, leaving three Israeli and hundreds of Palestinian civilians dead.

Walking down the path to the school entrance, Koelewyn mentions to another woman that her son was among the Israeli soldiers in the ground invasion of Gaza. The woman, Mis'sada Jaber, a 26-year-old Palestinian, is silent.

Inside, as they take their seats, Khoury tries to ease the tension. "We are experiencing a very painful war, and despite that, you are all here today—a real testament to what we are doing." Lifting some of the heaviness in the room, Landsman pulls out a bag of unbuttered popcorn and passes it around as "preventive medicine." Eventually the charged conversation segues into the swapping of strategies for healthy eating: Have fruit before the ice cream; don't arrive hungry to social events; try chopsticks; eat with your nondominant hand; use small plates. For this last meeting, the women have been asked to come with a symbol of hope. They take turns placing their objects in the center of their circle. Makarem Awad, 49, a Palestinian who works for a UN agency, carefully adds her pearl earrings to the pile of objects, saying softly, "They grow out of the darkness." Selma Braier, 49, an Israeli, plunks down her pedometer, with a toast: "Here's to hopes of reaching 10,000 steps a day." Everyone laughs.

As she has with the other groups she's led, Khoury notes with pleasure how the women have unclenched their fists and begun to see through stereotypes to their own value and shared humanity. "One comes up with beautiful conclusions in the end," she says: "I am more valuable than I thought. I need to dedicate more time to taking care of myself. And 'The other' is not as threatening as I've been led to believe."

When it's time to part, congratulations are given to the women who have lost weight, like Awad (almost 18 pounds) and Mussa (22 pounds), and encouraging words are offered to those who have not. There are hugs, whisperings of good luck, and promises to meet again. Awad is committed to joining a gym. Maureen Rajuan, 59, and two of the Palestinian women make plans to go power walking together.

"What I notice," says Slim Peace founder Luttwak, who hopes to start hundreds of groups—including some in the United States—"is that even if they don't stay in touch, they are forever changed by virtue of having met. They cannot go back as easily and demonize each other. They've become human beings."

Dina Kraft is a freelance journalist based in Israel.

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

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