Yuri Foreman became the first Israeli World Boxing Association (WBA) champion when he defeated Daniel Santos for the super welterweight world title in 2009. He is not your average professional boxer. A Belarusian-born Israeli immigrant who earned his title in New York, Foreman is also currently undertaking rabbinical studies with Rabbi Dovid Ber Pinson.
At an event organized by Yeshiva University’s Russian and Israel Clubs, Foreman spoke to students about the challenges he faced as a young Russian oleh (Israeli immigrant) with no Jewish background,
his journey to reconnect to his heritage, and his complex identity as an Orthodox boxer in the professional realm.
Foreman initially took up boxing so he’d be able to hold his own during a rough childhood in Belarus.
“I stepped into the gym and there was a big pile of black leather gloves. It was beautiful,” he said, recalling his instant fascination with the sport. He was intrigued by the thinking behind
the movements. “Many people see it as two guys trying to kill each other, but there’s a lot of thought and strategy that goes into it. Boxing is like a really fast-paced game of chess in some ways.” As
he improved, he began to see boxing as a possible career path and a ticket to a better life.
“In the Former Soviet Union, to be a Jew was a curse,” he said. However, even after his family’s immigration to Haifa, he had no connection to religion. “Judaism scared me,” Foreman admitted.
It was only after he’d made the decision to leave Israel and pursue a boxing career in New York that he visited Jerusalem and the Kotel for the first time. The experience was transformative.
Foreman took his first class in Judaism with Rabbi Pinson years later in the United States. “The first thing he said was how life was like boxing and Judaism helped you take those punches,” Foreman recalled.
Hooked, he began learning with Pinson on a regular basis. He still finds striking parallels between boxing and Judaism.
“People tell me sometimes they’re not motivated,” he said. “This is not how things work in Judaism or in boxing. It’s great to feel motivated because then it’s like something’s pushing you along, but
when you’re not motivated you still have to come to the gym and put in your 120%, just like you still have to put on tefillin in the morning and pray.”
For Jeffrey Gurock, Libby M. Klapperman professor of Jewish History at YU and author of the book Judaism’s Encounter with American Sports, Foreman’s story fits into a larger narrative of Jewish immigrants.
“In a way, he’s a throwback to an early era of American Jewish history where there were hundreds of Jewish boxers,” Gurock said. “You have to see Foreman as an immigrant Jew finding his way through this rough-and-tumble sport called boxing. He can maintain his Jewish traditions because boxing is one of the few sports where the participants can control the clock and calendar of the events.”
“He’s an illustration of the difficulties facing Jewish Russian immigrants in America and the ways they overcome them,” said Beryl Bronshteyn, a YU junior and vice president of the Russian club.
“His story also shows the importance of growing kiruv (outreach) movements in the Russian Jewish community.”
At the event, private boxing lessons with Foreman were raffled off to raise money for Machanaim, an organization which seeks to help Russian immigrants build their identities as Jews and Israeli citizens. Three students won a lesson, including YU senior Moshe Broder.
“I’m really excited to get a lesson from the best Jewish boxer alive,” he said.