The sun has barely crept over the horizon when Rhoda Harrison leaves her Mount Washington home for a fitness center tucked into the outskirts of Baltimore City.
For nearly a year, the ordained rabbi and cantor has exercised religiously at Nevermore CrossFit, one of the approximately 80 CrossFit facilities in the Maryland area. Harrison, 51, typically attends hour-long classes at 1420 Clarkview Road before heading to Har Sinai Congregation, where she has served as the director of congregational learning and programming since July 1.
“Every workout is different, and that’s what makes them challenging in a wonderful way,” Harrison said. “There’s a little bit of everything — strength, cardio, sprints. It keeps you on your toes.”
The CrossFit phenomenon has been sweeping the nation since founder Greg Glassman created the fitness regimen in the early 2000s. Classes incorporate functional movements from other fitness-related activities, including gymnastics, running, weightlifting and rowing, to produce high-intensity workouts that yield repeatable and measurable results, according to the CrossFit website.
As a regular attendee, Harrison has become friendly with the other Baltimoreans in her classes, which makes the workouts even more worthwhile.
“It’s very much about community, and I love that,” Harrison said. “It’s not unlike synagogues in that aspect.”
The Philadelphia native is all too familiar with the Jewish world. She completed her graduate studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where she received a master’s degree in sacred music and cantorial investiture in 1993. Roughly 20 years later, she obtained a doctoral degree in Jewish studies from Baltimore Hebrew Institute at Towson University.
After the closure of Temple Emanuel, where Harrison worked as cantor from 2000 to 2008 and sole clergy until 2016, she was unemployed. And although she continued to work in the Jewish community as a freelancer, the mother of two found herself with ample free time during the day.
To fill the void, Harrison added CrossFit to her routine last November and never looked back. In addition to running and cycling, the longtime fitness lover attends at least four classes a week at the CrossFit “box,” or gym.
On workdays, Harrison sacrifices a few hours of shut-eye to make the 7 a.m. workout session. Even on her days off, she still makes a point to arrive bright and early at the center for its 9:30 a.m. class.
“It’s worth it,” Harrison said. “When I’m at CrossFit, I’m not working. I’m not dealing with anyone else, but rather I’m taking care of me. It’s my outlet — something I do solely for myself.”
She will break from her stint as a CrossFitter to take the pulpit on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. For the second consecutive year, Harrison will serve as cantor at Temple Solel, a Reform- affiliated shul in Bowie, Md.
The Jewish educator has been preparing regularly for her stint at the end of September. As a longtime singer, allotting time to engage in physical activity is more than just a hobby — it’s a lifestyle.
“It’s so much a part of my vocal training and preparation year round,” Harrison said. “Singing is a physical endeavor. And being in the best shape physically and emotionally helps me be a better singer. It’s part and parcel of my High Holiday training.”
Harrison said there’s a comparison to be drawn between the steadfast dedication to a fitness regimen and the discipline needed to create as well as enhance Jewish spirituality in the synagogue.
“To the folks who complain about not feeling that instant spiritual connection when they come to services for the first time in months or years, I always say, ‘Does it feel good when you go to the gym if you haven’t gone in six months?’ It generally doesn’t,” Harrison said. “The body has to adjust. The same thing applies to Jewish worship and ritual. When you put the work and effort into creating that discipline, that’s when you’ll find spirituality.”