For all of his adult life, Rabbi Michael Torop has fought an essentially private battle with his weight.
He sought help from Nutrisystem. He worked with a nutritionist. At one point, he turned to Atkins. Then there was Weight Watchers — a couple of times.
"If you looked at a chart of my weight compared to age, say from college and graduate school and through 20 years of my professional life, it looked like the stock market in the years before the crash. It's a jagged but increasingly upward graph,'' he said wryly.
His wife, Betsy, who is rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in Brandon, and their three children have lived through and supported every dietary whim.
Outsiders were too polite to say anything. Until last summer. That's when the board of trustees at Temple Beth-El in St. Petersburg, where Torop has been rabbi for nine years, expressed concern about his health and weight and being able to serve the congregation long term.
For the Harvard-educated rabbi, who weighed more than 360 pounds, the talk with his congregation's leaders was the catalyst he needed. The trustees, among them co-presidents Craig Sher, executive chairman of the Sembler Co., and lawyer Lenny Englander, issued no ultimatum during their talk, Torop said.
"It was lovingly and gently shared from the perspective that we were looking at long-term goals and one of their long-term goals was for me to be around to serve the congregation,'' he said. "I was very touched by that and I was very moved by that.''
That was how the congregation of 450 families got involved in their rabbi's quest to lose his excess pounds once and for all.
Torop, 48, said he began what he's calling his "new life plan'' at the end of the High Holy Days — a time of introspection in Judaism. He signed up for a medically supervised weight loss program and asked temple staffers to hold him accountable.
"It's a little bit out of character to reveal personally so much, but it seemed the right thing to do from a lot of different perspectives,'' he said. "I decided that what I really needed to do was not to do it privately and quietly. In this instance, I needed to engage everyone as partners."
The support group broadened considerably after he shared his weight loss efforts with the trustees in October. Several offered to pledge money to the temple for every pound he lost. The idea resonated with the ways and means committee, which organizes the annual fundraiser that raises $30,000 to $40,000 for the temple's operating budget.
Jay Miller, chairman of the committee, recalled what happened: "One of the members said, 'Rather than spending $15,000 to organize a big event that we might raise $15,000 net, let me throw out a crazy idea. Why don't we open that to the whole congregation?' ''
Committee members approached Torop. "When they came to me, I was delighted. It could only do me good. It would hold me accountable in front of everybody,'' he said.
There's a spiritual component to his effort.
"I am trying to bring my own personal behavior and my own life choices into harmony with what I teach and what I believe to be how God wants us to live our lives,'' he said. "There is a degree to which one can feel hypocritical teaching one thing and behaving in a way that's contrary to that teaching."
Torop has turned to Dr. Eric Weinstock, a psychiatrist with offices in Largo, St. Petersburg and Tampa, for help. Under Weinstock's Weight Wise Rx program, he eats high-protein meals with a small amount of fruit and vegetables. Fats and carbohydrates are not part of his plan. He also gets nutritional supplements, appetite suppressants and vitamin B-complex injections.
Weinstock, who tailors his diets to individuals, said his patients lose about 10 pounds a month.
"Eighty percent of the time you're using regular food,'' Torop said. "It really becomes a pattern for changing your eating.''
But many religious obligations are tied to food, such as the Sabbath blessing and eating of challah, the traditional egg bread. "I have my little morsel,'' the rabbi said.
In two months, he has lost about 40 pounds. "It's very exciting. My ultimate goal is to lose 140 pounds.''
So far, about 75 to 80 Temple Beth-El members have made pledges totaling $220 a pound. "When you do the math, it's a pretty persuasive value as a fundraiser,'' Torop said.
Complementing the campaign is a health and fitness program that will run Sunday mornings through May. Yoga and fitness, nutrition and healthy Jewish cooking classes will be offered. Three public weigh-ins of Torop also will be scheduled over the next six months.
"The congregation is enthusiastic about it,'' Miller said of what is being called the "Let's Tighten Our Belts Campaign 2011.''
"I think what's most important is to support the rabbi. We want to see him slim down and be healthy, because we hope that he will be around for many years to come to lead our congregation."
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283.