A punch line might be expected when a boxer and a rabbi walk into a cultural center on the Upper East Side. But in this case, the boxer and the rabbi are the same person, and his influence at the 92nd Street Y is no laughing matter, unless you want a right cross to the chin.
Yuri Foreman, born an Orthodox Jew in the former Soviet republic Belarus, is a world champion super welterweight who, as a teenager, trained in an Arabic boxing gym in Haifa, Israel. He immigrated to America at the age of 18, and trained in Brooklyn. After a Golden Gloves championship as an amateur and a North American title as a pro, he achieved his ultimate goal when he defeated Daniel Santos in 2009 to become the World Boxing Association’s super welterweight champion, and the first Israeli to do so in any class. Mr. Foreman relinquished the crown a year later, but he continues to fight and practice a unique spiritual approach to the sport.
In his early years in New York, Mr. Foreman worked long hours in the garment district and did little else in his spare time but train and sleep. A fatigue set in that led to a serendipitous visit to a Brooklyn Heights synagogue in search of enlightenment.
“As I was maturing, as a person and a fighter, I realized that I needed some sort of spiritual center to achieve things physically, especially in boxing where you need to have good spiritual form and good physical form,” Mr. Foreman, who is now 37, said. “I needed an outlet — a spiritual backbone, so I could push myself better, channel my energy, be more present.”
Mr. Foreman began rabbinical studies and was eventually ordained. And while the balance between the physical and the spiritual certainly helped Mr. Foreman in the ring, it also informs him as a teacher.
At the 92nd Street Y’s May Center for Health, Fitness and Sport, past a labyrinth of rooms accommodating every imaginable athletic activity, is a bare-bones boxing room. To say that Mr. Foreman stands out in the simple, dumpy space is an understatement. He is fit and slender and dressed in sleek workout gear with bright graphics. He has a fair complexion and angled cheekbones, and his hair is coifed into a modern pompadour, while his boxer’s nose is more button-like than bent. But his eyes pulse with intensity as he tapes his knuckles and prepares for his regular Thursday class to arrive.
The group has been together for over two years. Mr. Foreman leads them through an hourlong session that combines training with a spiritual guidance.
The numbers vary, but the core of the group is a half dozen men and women of diverse ages and backgrounds. What they have in common is a history of athleticism and a passion for training with Mr. Foreman, who pushes them physically and binds them personally.
Robert Morrison, 72, was drawn to the class for obvious reasons, but it quickly became something more for him. “The sport can be beautiful; I love technique, and I love the art of it, so to get the chance to work with Yuri was very appealing; and then to meet these guys made it more fun; it made it like a club,” he said. “We kibitz, we talk, we work out. It’s a hard class — no doubt about it — but when I come here it’s not like, ‘Oh, I have to do a workout.’ These guys are terrific backup, and it’s become an integral part of my life.”
Seth Vacirca, 26, looks and moves like a young contender, and he comes with his father Joe, 60, a lifelong boxing fan and former practitioner of martial arts. The two now work out together on their own, having grown closer as father and son. They even recruited Seth Vacirca’s cousin, Stuart Orenstein, 35, into the group.
“We’re all different personalities,” Seth Vacirca said. “We play off each other. You’ll be in class ready to die, ready to give up, and you’ll hear somebody making jokes, and we’re all cracking up.”
The group goes through a rigorous warm up session, followed by basic boxing instruction — stance, punches, defense, movement — with intermittent physical conditioning, such as push-ups, planks, and air squats. Mr. Foreman works individually with each member patiently, unlike the gruff stance taken by many traditional trainers. Still, water breaks are short and infrequent. Breathing is heavy and sweat pours. After the closing (and grueling) core session, the participants — as if they’ve been knocked out en masse- take to their backs to meditate.
“Sports unites people,” Mr. Foreman said. “Me being a Russian boy Jew and training with Arabs, I saw what happens when we have the same goal in general,” he said. “They stopped looking at me like a Jew but like a boxer, as one of theirs. That’s sort of what we have here. We are all together.”
Margaret Dillon, 37, another participant — and Mr. Morrison’s wife — who has a background in Muay Thai and kick boxing, agreed with Mr. Foreman. “I’ve worked in fitness and teach yoga. I exercise all the time. I like this class — the camaraderie and the people, from Yuri down, it’s a thread that binds the class,” she said. “If I could do this everyday, I’d be so happy.”