Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Don’t count him out. At Brandeis, rabbi-to-be/boxer stirs students.

By Leah Burrows

The Jewish Advocate Staff

When boxer Yuri Foreman fell to the mat after his knee gave out in the seventh round of the fight to defend his world title last June, the 30,000 people at Yankee stadium smelled blood. They waved the Puerto Rican flags of his opponent and celebrated victory. But Foreman got back up.

When Miguel Cotto caught him against the ropes and Foreman’s knee buckled and he went down again – and the commentators said there was no way he could fight on – Foreman got back up.

When his trainer threw the white towel into the ring, and the mat flooded with coaches and trainers, Foreman said no and kept battling.

It was – after all – what his rabbi taught him to do.

Foreman, 30, has been a competitive boxer for almost 15 years, an Orthodox rabbinical student for about four years and a fighter for most of his life.

On Tuesday, he spoke to about 50 students at Brandeis University about Judaism, boxing and never giving up.

The program was sponsored by The Brandeis-Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry.

Foreman was born in Belarus, then part of the Soviet Union, and raised in a secular Jewish family. They were “Jewish in passport only,” Foreman said, meaning the government classified them as ethically Jewish, but they had no real connection to the religion or culture.

He remembers his parents referring to their kiddish cups as “the silver vodka shot glasses.”

Foreman got into his first fight when he was 7. A group of boys surrounded him in the locker room one day after swim class and threatened to beat him up if he didn’t do what they asked. Foreman didn’t and went home with his first black eye.

“The next day, my mom took me by the hand and took me to the boxing gym,” Foreman said.

He vividly recalls walking into the gym for the first time and listening to the sounds of punching bags, sparring and jump ropes.

His mom told the coach, “Make a man out of him.”

Foreman fell in love.

When the family moved to Israel a few years later, Foreman kept boxing. He found an Arab gym outside of Haifa, one of the few with punching bags and a ring. On his first day, the coach teamed the 10-year-old Foreman with a bigger, stronger Arab kid.

“I thought he was going to take my head off,” Foreman said.

The kid beat him in the first round, but Foreman came back. By the second and third rounds, he had gained the upper hand.

After that, Foreman trained in the Arab gym almost every day. By the time he was 18, Foreman had won three national championships in Israel and had competed in bouts around the world. But Foreman dreamed of a bigger stage and becoming a world champion.

Shortly after his mother died, Foreman’s father bought him a one-way ticket to New York City.

Before he left, Foreman made his first visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Following the lead of the Orthodox men around him, Foreman scrawled a note and stuck it into the wall’s ancient crevices.

In the note, he asked G-d for three things: to become a world champion, marry a model and to be guided and protected on his path through life.

As it turns out, he would realize the last request first. Foreman moved to Brooklyn and took a job carting cloth in New York’s garment district. He worked during the day and trained at night. But alone, with no friends or family, he felt something was missing.

He Googled “kabbalah” and found a Yeshiva near his apartment.

When he walked into the classroom and heard the rabbi say, “Life is like two boxers in a ring,” Foreman said he knew he had found something special.

“Life is like two boxers in a ring, and sometimes life hits you so hard that you find yourself on your back looking at the light. Judaism helps you dodge those punches, and gives you the strength to get back on your feet and continue fighting,” Foreman recalled the rabbi saying.

Beginning that day, Foreman became increasingly involved with his Judaism. He continued to find parallels between his career as a boxer and rabbinic study. He related to the story of Abraham taking up arms to save his nephew Lot, and the kabbalistic notion of interweaving prayer with physical exertion.

Prayer also helped Foreman structure his day – wrapping tefillin in the morning and gloves in the afternoon.

While studying Judaism and kabbalah, Foreman worked his way through the boxing world, winning the prestigious New York Golden Gloves award in 2001, the highest prize for amateur boxes.

Along the way, he met (at a gym, naturally) and married 5-foot-9 Leyla Leidecker, an amateur boxer and former model. The Hungarian-born Leidecker converted to Judaism.

When Foreman won the world championship in 2009 in the super welterweight category (about 150 pounds), he became the first Orthodox Jewish champion in more than 75 years.

When he finishes his rabbinic program next year, Foreman will be the first professional boxer with a rabbinic degree.

In the meantime, Foreman said he is putting all of his energy into recovering from his injury last year and winning back the championship he lost to Cotto.

Foreman’s first fight is March 12 in Las Vegas. It’s not for the title, but Foreman vows to keep fighting until he gets it back.