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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."

Watch American Morning weekdays 6am to 9am ET. For the latest from American Morning click here.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

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

soundoff (221 Responses)
  1. Blackbeered

    What's the story here ?

    Now if the Dalai Lama was training to be a top-flight kick boxer, there would be a story !

    September 18, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
  2. bb

    this guy is the best boxer in the world??

    September 18, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
  3. CDaeda

    A rabbi boxer. A good story if he keeps winning fights.

    September 18, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  4. Big Man

    If he's proud to be an Israeli waving their flag, he should leave our soil. I consider him a zionist Max Schmeling.

    September 18, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
    • trixen

      And you should leave too. I have a longing desire to kick folks like yourself squarely in the tеѕtісlеѕ.

      September 18, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
    • Larry

      I re-read the article and nowhere could I find where he said he was proud to be Israeli, but even if he did, so what? What is wrong about being proud of his country? I know many Irish, Italian, Greek and others who are proud of the countries of their heritage, and are exemplary citizens of the US at the same time. What is your point exactly other than you have a problem with Israel or Jews? Or are you angry that an Israeli is also a great boxer? Your post seems to reflect some strange prejudice. Should Irish Americans denounce Ireland? I wonder if you have the courage to explain yourself. And I wonder if you would have the guts to tell your opinions to Yuri face to face.

      September 18, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
  5. maxhedroom

    He's pretty fly for a rabbi!

    September 18, 2011 at 11:46 am |
  6. John Arguelles

    Way to go! I'm in your shoes as well. Jewish born but never understood how it felt to be a religious Jew. You are in inspiration to all Jews to become Jewish follow Judaism.

    September 18, 2011 at 11:44 am |
    • John Arguelles

      I'm not a Zionist just my own person.

      September 18, 2011 at 11:48 am |
    • olcranky

      just so you know zionism and judaism are not the same thing. while most jews are considered zionists because they supports israel's right to exist with secure boundaries, not all are (and not all zionists are jews).

      September 18, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  7. Nospam

    This is nonsense. I don't think G-d wants you to beat the crap out of other people, to cause them organ and brain damage. This guy can try to rationalize it all he wants, but I think dealing in violence, corruption, and money isn't religious at all.

    September 18, 2011 at 10:53 am |
    • clearfog

      What are you talking about, dealing in violence, corruption, and money are the fundamental foundations of religion.

      September 18, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • Scowl

      Check and mate to clearfog.

      September 18, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • Sue

      What clearfog said. Brilliant post.

      September 18, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
  8. Carole Clarke

    Makes you realize how fortunate we are in the USA. Guess he didn't stay long in Israel, just passed through on his way here. Good for him, he's accomplishing what he wants to do, building his life anew with the tools he has.

    September 18, 2011 at 10:53 am |
    • Matt

      Did you read the article? Nowhere does it say he spent time in Israel.

      September 18, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
    • joe

      I suggest to read it, Good luck.
      http://boxingcoachmike.com/michael-kozlowskis-student-yuri-foreman-becomes-professional-world-champion.html

      September 22, 2011 at 9:26 pm |
  9. abdul izsmelli

    knockouts...he can get them for you wholesale!!!!

    September 18, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  10. hushupp

    Finally, an interesting and well-written story. Best of luck to Yuri in whatever he chooses to do. Kudos to Eric and Ali for listening in school.

    September 18, 2011 at 10:47 am |
  11. clearfog

    I thought that the Rules of Queensberry prohibited the Rabbi Punch.

    September 18, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • abdul izsmelli

      only when competing against goyum

      September 18, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • nobull4u

      Boo. A pun is the lowest form of humor.

      September 18, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
  12. Tommy D

    Great story! All the best. 😉

    September 18, 2011 at 10:26 am |
  13. Newsy97

    This man won won a belt, that makes him World class. Top boxer in the world is a stretch, but it is an interesting story.

    September 18, 2011 at 10:15 am |
  14. saywaaat

    pure bs.if he is a top boxer how come no one has even heard of him.???? this article is just to fill the "positive pro jewish/israel" quota that every news media in the united states is obligated to churn out .

    September 18, 2011 at 10:11 am |
    • Schaz

      We never heard of him before now, because the US media only reports on heavyweights and the Olympics.

      September 18, 2011 at 10:28 am |
  15. Rabbi Green

    I was golden gloves back some years ago, I didn't get a story in the paper.... Good thing he isn't training with me...

    September 18, 2011 at 10:04 am |
    • joe

      Interesting story about Foreman betrating his coach
      http://boxingcoachmike.com/michael-kozlowskis-student-yuri-foreman-becomes-professional-world-champion.html

      September 22, 2011 at 9:28 pm |
  16. peacppl

    will he let Amir khan knock hiom out after he waves his Israeli falg around like Dmitry "Israeli flag waver" Salita did?....ist round...1 min 30 seconds?

    September 18, 2011 at 9:13 am |
    • peacppl

      *flag

      September 18, 2011 at 9:14 am |
  17. haha

    Someone got hit in the head too many times

    September 18, 2011 at 9:00 am |
  18. Zohar Freiberg

    ישר כוח, יורי!!!

    September 18, 2011 at 8:59 am |
  19. johnroc

    top boxer ? lies! floyd mayweather is the top boxer. im certain floyd can beat the torah out this dude.

    September 18, 2011 at 8:55 am |
    • peacppl

      Pacqiao..PERIOD!!!!!

      September 18, 2011 at 9:19 am |
    • Ben Fogel

      "one of the worlds best boxers", not the best. Great reading.

      September 18, 2011 at 9:33 am |
    • abdul izsmelli

      yeah, all he has to do is sucker punch him while he is busy praying

      September 18, 2011 at 10:52 am |
    • liz48

      You sound so foolish; your words are pathetic. The Creator of Torah gave you your last breath. Thank Him for His Mercy, that foolishness is not instantly fried....

      September 18, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
  20. Samuel

    Yuri is a champ in and out of the ring.

    September 18, 2011 at 1:23 am |
    • liz48

      Yes...a true champ. Not the cardboard cut out model from Hollywood; here today, gone tomorrow; with no morals and no depth. They are a tragic happening and a bad role model for young people who overdose on drugs and live like evolutionary animals, with no understanding of their Creator God and Father...

      September 18, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • Sue

      Liz, care to share any of that "understanding" with us? So far you haven't shown that you have any.

      September 18, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
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About this blog

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.