September 16th, 2011
05:00 AM ET

One of world's best boxers is training to be a rabbi

By Eric Marrapodi and Ali Velshi, CNN

Brooklyn, New York (CNN) — Cutting the thick summer air, an industrial fan struggles to cool Gleason’s Gym.

Two women trade punches to the face in a morning sparring session before heading off to work.

Boxing gloves snap and thump, keeping the rhythm with the grunts and shouts. There is no music, no TVs, no smoothie bar. It smells like a boxing gym should: awful.

In walks the rabbi in training.

“Yuri!” a boxer calls out in greeting.

The champ is here.

Winning a belt does wonders for your popularity at the gym.

Yuri Foreman, right, spars with his trainer at Gleason's Gym.

Thirty-one-year-old Yuri Foreman has a tight schedule today. He kissed his wife and son goodbye early and then pedaled over to the gym to train. From here, he will bike over to see a rabbi.

Foreman is hitting the books, studying to be a rabbi with the same determination that helped him become a world championship boxer.

One goal: to be the best

He immigrated to the United States by himself over a decade ago by way of Israel but was raised in Belarus, part of the former Soviet Union.

"I came to New York just so I could experience in my own skin the American dream,” he said.

On his second day on U.S. soil, he found his way to into a boxing gym. He arrived with a singular goal.

“I came here and I told the owner, 'I want to be a world champion.' ”

Bruce Silverglade gets that a lot. He owns Gleason’s Gym.

Gleason’s opened its doors in 1937. Silverglade said it's the oldest operating boxing gym in the United States.

It has trained 132 champions. The first was Jake LaMotta, “The Raging Bull.” When Robert DeNiro studied to play LaMotta in the iconic boxing film, he came to Gleason’s to learn the sweet science.

Dozens of other Hollywood productions have followed. On this day, a sheet of paper taped to the front door says the gym will be closing early because Warner Bros. is filming that morning.

Fighters come from all over the world with pronouncements to Silverglade of their greatness.

“I was impressed with Yuri because instead of coming from (around the corner), he came from halfway around the world with no support team," Silverglade said. “He didn’t come with a father or a mother for support. He didn’t come with any money.”

Silverglade enrolled Foreman in his Give a Kid a Dream program, which provides free training to disadvantaged children.

You’re the champ, so now what?

Foreman had what it takes. He worked his way through the ranks and got a title shot.

He won the World Boxing Association Super Welterweight title and was the best boxer in the world.

But along the way, something changed.

As he was climbing in the boxing ranks, he found something he had left behind in Belarus: his Jewish faith.

Yuri Foreman, right, is training to become a rabbi.

“It was forbidden to have synagogues. Many Jews forgot about their roots. The only real reminder was in their passport; under nationality, it said 'Jew,' " he said.

Living in Brooklyn, with its thriving Jewish communities, helped him reconnect with his roots.

“It’s like my rabbi says, ‘This is the closest thing to Jerusalem,' ” he said of his new home.

When his girlfriend, who was not Jewish, asked him basic questions about Judaism, he realized he didn’t have the answers.

“She told me, ‘You know what, study some.’ So through her, she kinda introduced me to Judaism.”

That was the moment it all changed. Six years ago, she converted, and they were married. Foreman dug deep into his faith and realized he wanted to go even further, so he began rabbinical training.

A different kind of hard work

A few miles from the gym, Foreman’s bike is locked up outside a stately brownstone on a leafy street in Brooklyn Heights. Inside the rabbi's house, he is sitting at the dining room table with the rabbi and two other rabbinical students.

Sunlight floods the beautifully appointed home. The four men sit quietly around the table, books open. Rabbi DovBer Pinson uses his finger to follow the words on the page, right to left, as he reads aloud in Hebrew from a commentary and interjects quick English explanations. He gently rocks back and forth in his chair.

Yuri Foreman studies with Rabbi DovBer Pinson.

There is no shouting, no pounding. The only sound is the rhythmic cadence of the rabbi’s reading. It is as far away from the gym as you can get.

“You’d have to have a whole mountain of salt. Why would anyone do that?” the rabbi asks as he explains a finer point of meat purification rituals.

The lesson ends with the rabbi closing his book.

“Thank you, rabbi,” Foreman says as he taps his iPhone to stop recording the session.

“I felt that it was important for him to continue to study no matter what he did for a living,” Pinson explains.

The notion of a studying to be a man of the cloth while earning a living by fighting is virtually unheard of.

“I think the idea of pursing a spiritual career takes a lot of perseverance and focus, and you have to be very committed that this is something you want to do very deeply, because you have to overcome a lot of hurdles,” Pinson says.

“Any intense study will help a person become more focused in life and more centered and aligned, so I think there’s some correlation between these two,” the rabbi says of the interweaving of Foreman’s current and future career paths.

The next round

Pinson is a well-respected Kabbalist scholar and Hasidic rabbi who focuses his scholarly efforts on Jewish mysticism.

But Foreman demurs when asked what branch of Judaism he will serve as a rabbi. He is Orthodox in some ways - he keeps kosher, which he said does not affect his ability to fight - but he is unorthodox in other ways. The clean-shaven Foreman has no intentions of becoming a long-bearded rabbi with a congregation.

"Right now, my goal is to work with young adults and with kids who perhaps need a little push, need a little motivation that I can offer them through boxing or personal experience. That would be my thing now."

Foreman has been studying for over three years and is about a year away from completing his rabbinical studies.

Many boxing commentators have wondered whether his career in the ring may be coming to a close as well.

A nagging knee injury forced him to limp through a bout with Miguel Cotto at Yankee Stadium last year. Foreman suffered a knockout and lost his title to Cotto. In his next fight, he lost again. A string of losses can shake a fighter’s confidence badly. He is taking time off to rehab his knee and plot his next steps as a boxer.

Foreman said his studies - and his faith - keep him grounded.  If and when he fights again, as with every fight, he'll first send up a special prayer.

"Protect me, protect the person I'm fighting, but help me to win."

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- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Content Partner • Judaism • New York • Sports • TV-American Morning • United States

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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.