Article by Tasha Ackerman
World champion boxer and rabbi, Yuri Foreman, equates the history of the Jews to a quote from famous boxer, George Foreman: all a boxer can do is answer the bell. Yuri explains: “Through history, Jews have been knocked down. Displaced. Yet, despite this, we are always coming back. That our existence is proof of G-d because despite going through hell, we are still here.”
When I decided to make aliyah, my decision to move to Israel was not solely for my love of the land and of the people, but also as a means to strengthen my connection to my Jewish roots. So when I met with Yuri and Shoshana Foreman from my laptop in Israel, connected via Zoom to them on their vacation balcony in Cape May, I was surprised to learn that Yuri’s Jewish identity grew after his yerida, or departure, from Israel.
Aliyah translates from Hebrew to English as “ascend,” and to make aliyah for generations has meant immigrating to Israel. Yerida, in contrast, means “descend”, or also used as a term to describe Jews that emigrate from Israel, sometimes in a derogatory way. Yet, when Yuri moved from Israel to Brooklyn to pursue a world championship in boxing, he jokes how he found himself in the city closest to Jerusalem.
Yuri Foreman was born in Belarus and raised in Gomel until he moved with his parents to Israel when he was 11. Yuri began boxing in Gomel and his passion continued to grow with him in Israel. At age 19, he concluded that he had reached his full potential as a boxer in Israel, so he moved to the United States to pursue his dream of becoming a world champion some day. By his second day in New York, he had already been welcomed at Gleason’s world-famous boxing gym. Yuri notes it was nice that the gym owner, Bruce Silverglade, was also Jewish. In 2009, Yuri became a world champion.
When Yuri was 19 and training, spirituality had not been on his radar. However, a few years later, he started searching for some kind of meaning, something higher than himself. He started taking classes at a synagogue, and what had sparked as an interest grew into a flame, he wanted to pursue his rabbinical studies. Eventually, he was full-time boxing and studying to become a rabbi. Yuri found the companionship between sport and study supportive of each other. While boxing is an intensively physical sport, it is also mental and spiritual. Sometimes when boxing, he realizes that sometimes challenges are bigger than himself. In return, his rabbinical studies are grounding, allowing him to find his stability in the ring. He explains: “Soul is limitless and we also have to understand that Judaism teaches us that we are way more than just physical form and we have to always hold the light.”
Yuri’s wife, Shoshana Haddasah Foreman, also discovered her Judaism, in part, in Brooklyn. Years before Yuri and Shoshana started dating, they had met at the clinic in the ER (emergency room) where Shoshana was working, when Yuri had come in for stitches after a fight. Shoshana was a physician assistant in the ER and had been moonlighting in plastic surgery. After their meeting, they connected on social media but continued on their own paths. Shoshana is a New York native of Irish and Hungarian descent. While she may have Jewish blood on her Hungarian side she was not raised Jewish. Over time, Shoshana developed a spiritual practice, and through meditation felt a calling to convert to Judaism. A concept that at first felt random, after researching options she was certain that it was the right thing for her to do. “I fell in love with it,” she explains.
After Shoshana began her religious studies, she started working in a clinic with the Satmar community in Williamsburg. She began taking conversion classes at a synagogue that offered conservative services and was also learning the customs of the ultra-orthodox community she was working with. She then switched to complete her conversion with an orthodox program. Her dedication and immersion into the community helped her become accepted and for her to complete the conversion in a year and a half.
At this stage, Shoshana was committed to discovering herself as a Jewish woman. During this period of both personal exploration and commitment to her community, she developed a niche of doing minor plastic surgery procedures and became well-known in Williamsburg for doing small reparative procedures. This was a period of growth for Shoshana. She explains the power of looking inward and learning to trust: “Through Hashem… that’s where the biggest echoes are.”
Nearly five years later, Yuri was searching for someone on Facebook Messenger when noticed Shoshana’s name change, she had gone by Christine before her conversion when they had first met. Yuri messaged Shoshana and at this stage of their life, they were both available. Shoshana had finished her conversion and Yuri had finished his semikhah, or rabbinic ordination. After training together once, Yuri asked Shoshana out on a date and they were married 13 months later in a boxing ring at Gleason’s.
Recently, Yuri began having more interest in his Belarusian roots, recalling stories of his ancestors. Yuri and Shoshana would love to take a heritage trip to explore their ancestral lands. To ride on the rail which Yuri’s grandmother had been a conductor that traveled from Belarus to Moscow. To learn more about his great-grandmother who was a partisan in Belarus fighting with the Nazi resistance. A woman who is surely written about in partisan books, though through generations within his family, the stories have become more distant and details forgotten.
To Yuri, the importance of awareness and heritage in Judaism is symbolic. For example, the practice of naming children after relatives who are no longer in their physical form serves as a reminder of where we come from and a preservation of our legacy. How the Torah may be opened and read by those who may have forgotten their history, they can read their stories for themselves. These symbols serve as reminders of where we come from and who we are.
Knowing that ancestral vitality is connected to our many facets of health. Shoshana explains, “Our ancestry, or genes- they affect us on a cellular level… it’s incredible how our ancestors are so embedded in us and I do think on a spiritual level they are guiding us to our life purpose.” It is the stories, the shared history, ancestry, tradition, and spirit that link generations to generations from both within a family and within the Jewish community at large.
Years after they married, Shoshana became Yuri’s manager as he continued his pursuit of another world championship. Yuri and Shoshana Foreman are a couple that have a shared vision for engaging in health-based community work: recognizing the importance and intersectionality of spiritual health, mental health, and physical health. Yuri’s background as a professional boxer and as a rabbi, and Shoshana’s background in the medical profession and through her religious studies give them a unique perspective on health, healing, and community. However this vision manifests, the intersectionality between Judaism and physical, mental and spiritual health will be present in their work and in their lives. Yuri equates the resilience of the Jewish people to the popular boxing phrase: keep your eye on the prize, as a reminder to continue carrying the light of our people.
While neither Shoshana nor Yuri mentioned “bashert” during my interview with the two of them, the Yiddish concept of destiny or an inevitable fate, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the concept bestowed on me from my Nana since childhood. How coincidently Shoshana and Yuri both went on their own religious studies after they had met so that when they reconnected, they had both undergone a spiritual journey that would ultimately bind them together. How their careers and passions which function with the physical body are intrinsically intertwined with their spiritual practice, giving them their unique and holistic approach to Judaism And how regardless of where we originate from and regardless of our path to discovering our Judaism, be it an aliyah, yerida, conversion, or any other path, that by tending to our roots within a faith and people that have persevered for thousands of years, the magic of bashert can bloom in unexpected and bountiful ways.