The Kosher Contender

By Gordon Haber

Published November 11, 2009.
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Professional athletes lead interesting lives. Yuri Foreman’s life has been really interesting. Foreman was born in 1980 in the Soviet Union and started his boxing training at 7 years old. He kept it up when his family immigrated to Israel in 1991, eventually winning three national championships. To further his career, Foreman came to the United States in 1999 and worked a full-time job while training at night. In 2002, he became the New York Golden Gloves champion.

As a professional, Foreman’s record is an impressive 27-0 with 8 KOs. On Saturday, November 14, he will fight Daniel Santos (32-3-1, 23 KOs) for the World Boxing Association super welterweight title, making him the first Israeli to fight for a world boxing title.

As if that doesn’t keep him busy enough, Foreman is also training to become a rabbi. He spoke with the Forward’s Gordon Haber four days before the fight.

Gordon Haber: Apparently in Haifa, where your family settled, you trained in an Arab neighborhood?

Yuri Foreman: Yes, the nearest gym was actually in an arab village. I can tell you right now, it was a good experience. I was a Jewish, Russian immigrant and I had to train in an Arab boxing gym so there were a lot of stares. But it’s kind of a melting pot, this sport, so you kind of team up. You have the same goals, and you team up.

I’m assuming that in the Soviet Union and in Israel, you weren’t raised religious.

No, this came in the United States. I was probably a spiritual person, but in Israel my mind was pretty much occupied with boxing all the time. Then I came to the United States, working from 9 until 6 at my day job, and then going to the boxing gym, and I thought, “I’m missing something important from my life.” I sort of needed spiritual support. I started learning and doing research on Judaism … I started catching up here.

But it’s one thing to become observant. The decision to become a rabbi is a much bigger step.

Well, when I started to get closer to Judaism, my rabbi, Rabbi DovBer Pinson, about five years ago, offered me to join the rabbinical program. And I jumped at the opportunity. When I was growing up in Israel as a Russian immigrant, nobody ever invited me for Shabbat dinner. I didn’t learn much about Judaism. And I know there are a lot of Russian kids in Israel who need somebody, who I can advise. And I think that when I become a rabbi I could go back and get a few people closer to the Jewish faith.

I have to ask about rabbinical issues and boxing. Is it possible to reconcile this kind of a sport with Jewish law?

I understand your question; you’re not the first to ask. Basically there is this law, you can’t hit anybody. But there are always loopholes in Halacha. For example, if somebody signed a contract for a boxing match, and he’s already aware that injury is involved with the sport, if he willingly takes that risk, it’s not like you’re hurting someone. The exact source is… hold on. [Reads aloud to himself in Hebrew.] Okay. There’s a book called “Minchat Chinuch,” and it says basically that the issur, or prohibition, of hitting is only when the other person does not agree to it. But if he agrees, there is no prohibition at all.

You’re also going to be in a movie, “Fighting,” with Terrence Howard. Do you have a speaking role?

And Channing Tatum. I have a fighting part!

Do you imagine having any kind of acting career?

I don’t know. I’m not really concentrating on this.

Maybe that wasn’t my sharpest question.

[Laughs] No, no, you’re good.

Gordon Haber is a frequent contributor to the Forward.


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