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. Tyisha Zachariah

    Physical activity can provide an outlet for your emotions, especially if you're about to erupt. If you feel your anger escalating, go for a brisk walk or run, or spend some time doing other favorite physical activities. Physical activity stimulates various brain chemicals that can leave you feeling happier and more relaxed than you were before you worked out. ,

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    February 26, 2013 at 2:16 pm |
  2. Охотники на ведьм смотреть онлайн

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    January 2, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
  3. joe

    Oh, people...Foreman betrate his coach (i learned it from his former coach Michael Kozlowski's website). Very intersting story, hardly recommend to read..

    September 22, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
  4. emelyn

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    September 21, 2011 at 2:54 am |
  5. May

    I just want it said for the record that "I do not understand what anyone is saying about this!"

    September 19, 2011 at 11:43 am |
  6. nucmeddave

    It's my humble opinion that when you trim the fat, there are 3 types of people on this planet....1) people who need an explanation for life and death and seek it through religion and faith. 2) people who need an explanation for life and death and seek it through science and fact. 3) people like me (you can call me agnostic if labels are a requirement for opinions) who don't really care how we got here or where we are going...the key in my eye is to just appreciate what I have, no matter what means I have it...I'm sure a "Supreme Being" would afford us this luxury, and if not, then that "God" is flawed with human emotions such as spite. Both sides here (religion vs. science) is spewing enough inane rhetoric in these blogs that you almost collectively make the ageless divide between Dems. and Reps. look palatable!

    September 19, 2011 at 11:41 am |
    • May

      Can I have a day or two to think about that?

      September 19, 2011 at 11:42 am |
  7. nucmeddave


    September 19, 2011 at 11:31 am |
  8. Mathilda

    Jews, trust in Jesus as your Savior. He is your God.

    September 19, 2011 at 12:59 am |
    • sami

      Mathilda, No he is not, but thank you for being concerned. I promise not to bore you with my personal beliefs. I also promise that I am not interested in yours.

      September 19, 2011 at 8:09 am |
    • May

      Jesus was a jew. At least that is what history says. And how does this relate to our former-boxing rabbi?

      September 19, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • Mathilda

      @Sami, your personal beliefs are boring because those are not truth. The Jews need to trust in Jesus alone to be saved. It's a vital Truth for every human on Earth – the reason it is proclaimed.

      September 20, 2011 at 2:24 am |
    • DrFreud

      I'd rather believe in Zeus or Thor than your stupid fairy tale.

      September 30, 2011 at 10:12 am |
  9. Mathilda

    Jews, admit that Jesus is your Messiah. Why do you regard your Jewish-ness so important? The fact you are a Jew is not important as to finding who God is. Why will you deny God's Truth in order to cling to your ID in your own way? Acknowledging who your Messiah is universe-more important than claiming your ethnic ID. You are truly Jewish only in Jesus.

    September 19, 2011 at 12:58 am |
    • Uncouth Swain

      @Mat- let's ignore the aspect of faith here and focus on human nature. Who, whether for their own good or not, ever does what they are told? Especially after being told that what they have known all their life is wrong.

      September 19, 2011 at 8:19 am |
    • Mike

      Are you kidding me? Respect differences. If you believe Jesus is your Messiah, good for you. Don't push your views on others.

      October 12, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
  10. Reality

    Reality of Israel in the 21st century:=======================>

    origin: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20E1EFE35540C7A8CDDAA0894DA404482 NY Times

    New Torah For Modern Minds

    “Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.

    Such startling propositions – the product of findings by archaeologists digging in Israel and its environs over the last 25 years – have gained wide acceptance among non-Orthodox rabbis. But there has been no attempt to disseminate these ideas or to discuss them with the laity – until now.

    The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called "Etz Hayim" ("Tree of Life" in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine doc-ument.

    The notion that the Bible is not literally true "is more or less settled and understood among most Conservative rabbis," observed David Wolpe, a rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and a contributor to "Etz Hayim." But some congregants, he said, "may not like the stark airing of it." Last Passover, in a sermon to 2,200 congregants at his synagogue, Rabbi Wolpe frankly said that "virtually every modern archaeologist" agrees "that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way that it happened, if it happened at all." The rabbi offered what he called a "LITANY OF DISILLUSION”' about the narrative, including contradictions, improbabilities, chronological lapses and the absence of corroborating evidence. In fact, he said, archaeologists digging in the Sinai have "found no trace of the tribes of Israel – not one shard of pottery."

    September 18, 2011 at 11:51 pm |
    • .........

      spam alert hit report abuse on all reality posts

      September 19, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
  11. oh please

    rocking back n forth is called self stimming and is a psychological manifestation of issues he need to have counseling over.

    September 18, 2011 at 6:29 pm |
    • Really?

      Actually, when reciting or reading something that has a lyrical cadence to it, rocking back and forth helps keep time.

      September 18, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
  12. just sayin

    sport notorious for brain damage


    Just sayin...

    September 18, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
  13. drc

    Since when Foreman has been a Belorussian jewish name? I guess they have Frazier too who aspires to be a local imam. LOL!

    September 18, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
  14. Adam C

    Yuri is Russian for George. George Foreman

    September 18, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
    • Ilya

      No, George would be Georgij.

      September 18, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
  15. Zammin

    Can't say I saw this one coming. But hey, it sounds interesting, heartwarming, and will be a great story to tell people. "Hey, you know my rabbi? He's a championship boxer!" So cool it sounds made up.

    September 18, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
  16. Nancy

    Holy Mozambique! We have a good story, about a kid from Belarus who comes to America, works hard to improve himself, starts a family and immerses himself in learning about his 'spiritual' heritage – and what do we get for comments? Smug, self-righteous evangelicals trying to foist their version of religion all over anyone unwitting enough to read them, antagonistic atheists slugging it out with the moral mental minority, and very few actually commenting on the gist of the story.

    Why can't people of all (or no) faiths simply read a story for what it is and accept it as that? Why do we HAVE to have the constant proselytizing for the not-so-"Christian" faith, or no faith? I admire this young man for his perseverance in the face of the odds, no matter his religious beliefs. Reading some of the King James (re-written and endorsed by a laic king with an improper understanding of the actual scripture) bible quotes makes me long to burn all of their bibles until they can learn to read past the inaccuracies and hypocrisy.

    The Saint Joseph edition of the "Christian" bible isn't too much better, written as it was by MEN, hundreds of years after the deaths of all concerned. Ever play 'telephone?' 'Nuff said. Let's face it, people, Jesus *might* have been an actual person, but what he attempted to do was woefully and criminally misconstrued – and has continued to be twisted and misconstrued to serve the causes of MEN for thousands of years after his death. He tried to teach his fellow man a better way of living with each other, a way that does not call for violence upon the *other,* and what happened? Not only did they kill the messenger, but they totally screwed up the message in the process. And are still screwing it up today.

    The petty, mean-spirited comments made by those on this blog that claim to espouse Jesus as their "personal savior" show, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they have no clue what Jesus believed or taught. And whatever happened to "Love thy neighbor as thyself?" What became of the admonitions to not judge, lest ye be judged? That's the main problem with religion today – far too few are willing to "let go and let God" and far too many are far too willing to shove their "God" in my face in an attempt to force me to follow their beliefs.

    I and mine will continue to live our lives as the best humans we can be... and will continue to treat our fellow humans the same as, if not better than, we are treated. And we will continue to watch the petty oneupmanship, strife, riots, bloodshed, deaths, and maimings with sorrow and disbelief – so much waste in the name of a person who preached love.

    September 18, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
    • pfft

      shut up

      September 18, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • Nancy

      @pfft – That's the best you can come up with? "Shut up?" About what? You're suggesting I should stop speaking out about the immorality of so-called "religious" people attacking others? You, dear, are an excellent example of what's wrong with the entire dialogue.

      September 18, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
    • aatami

      Hahahahaaa! Well stated Nancy. I should say however that I am one of the anti religion folks that believes the religious should be put in re-education camps until they learn how to be decent human being.

      September 18, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
    • Nancy

      @aatami – the problem is the fact that many of the religiously inclined ARE capable of civil discourse, as are many of the, as you put it, "anti-religious." I would prefer that the intolerant of both camps be interred somewhere until they work on their anger management issues, y'know? 😉

      September 18, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
  17. Abby

    Saw Yuri speak at a Jewish convention in March. Inspirational.

    September 18, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
  18. Alex

    He came to my school two years ago, truly a great guy

    September 18, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
  19. Aaron S.

    Neat story, and I respect him for pursuing and excelling at such diverse interests.

    Makes me think of M*A*S*H... Wasn't Father Mulcahy a boxer, too?

    September 18, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
    • MCR

      Exactly! Father MulCahy's character in MASH was a boxer 😉

      September 18, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
  20. huxley

    I was hoping it would be Manny Pacquiao. That would have been awesome. The first boxer-singer-Congressman-Rabbi.

    September 18, 2011 at 2:24 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.