Are Jews lifeguards because of pikuach nefesh?

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An Eppley lifeguard watches as someone uses the pool. Anastasia Marks/Mitzpeh.

By Anastasia Marks
For Mitzpeh
@stasiasayshey

 

Aaron Kraiman can’t work as a lifeguard on Saturdays at Eppley Recreation Center, but he won’t ask other Jewish lifeguards to cover his shift on Shabbat.

“In Judaism, you don’t ask another Jew to do work for you on the Sabbath,” said Kraiman, a senior kinesiology major. “There have been times where Jews have said that they can take my shifts, but I feel like that that’s not treating them or their Judaism with the most respect. Just because we observe at different levels doesn’t mean that I should benefit from their work on the Sabbath.”

Kraiman is one of about 15 Jewish lifeguards working at Eppley this semester. Proportionally, Jews make up less than 15 percent of the lifeguards, which is lower than this university’s Jewish population — about 19 percent, according to Hillel International.

To Kraiman, lifeguarding is the perfect example of pikuach nefesh, or the rescuing of life — complete with whistles and floatation devices to save people drowning in the pool. Despite the small Jewish population in Eppley lifeguards, Kraiman believes being a lifeguard is a perfect example of the Torah’s teachings.

“I’m sure every religion has those similar values, but [saving lives] is a really big thing in Judaism,” Kraiman said. “A lot of Jews are lifeguards in their various neighborhoods.”

Senior economics major Jerry Katz, who is also a Jewish lifeguard at Eppley, understands that some of the Jewish lifeguards at Eppley might be there because of pikuach nefesh, but thinks that it’s more likely to be a result of Jewish demographics.

“Most people who are lifeguards are from higher socioeconomic backgrounds,” Katz said. “The majority are white, and so I think a part of that is that a lot of Jewish people are in that middle class range and their kids are on swim teams and in swim lessons. That feeds into being a lifeguard.”

Julia LeMel, a junior kinesiology major, was a lifeguard before coming to this university and joined at Eppley to get an on-campus job. LeMel said sometimes the lifeguard community learns more about Judaism — especially Birthright — by talking to the Jewish lifeguards on the staff.

“With other guards … who are half Jewish, I’ll talk to them about Birthright and stuff,” LeMel said, “and other guards who aren’t Jewish will chime in and say ‘Oh, that’s the free trip to Israel, right?’ Things like that and being around it, they hear about it and certain holidays where everyone’s pretty open to talking about it.”

Although Judaism is a topic discussed among all lifeguards regardless of religion, LeMel believes it isn’t a major issue or focal point within the Eppley lifeguard community.

“There could be more Jewish lifeguards that we don’t know,” LeMel said. “I don’t think people come to work and are openly saying ‘I’m Jewish’ or ‘I’m Christian’ or ‘I’m this and that’… I don’t think the [low proportion of Jewish lifeguards] is a misrepresentation within the lifeguards. [A large percent] of the school is Jewish, but only x amount of that population is a practicing Jew.”

To lifeguards, it isn’t always about being Jewish; it’s about saving lives and finding a job on this university’s campus. Regardless of their reasons, Jews add a religious flavor to lifeguarding on campus. Pikuach nefesh tells them to save lives, college tells them to get a job, but lifeguarding lets them do both.

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