June 13, 2024
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Ultimate Warriors Wear Tzitzis and Yarmulkas

If there was ever a sitcom to be written that portrayed a typical Orthodox Jewish male lead, he would likely be on the short side, overly studious and would possess a particular affinity for a well made potato kugel. But two men with ties to the New Jersey area are out to challenge those stereotypes, modeling themselves not after the mild mannered Clark Kent, but his muscular alter ego, pushing themselves to their physical limits with impressive feats of physical endurance, a la Superman. Meet Queens semicha student Akiva Neuman and Teaneck teacher Yaakov Samuels, two ultimate warriors who are proud Orthodox Jews.

Former Highland Park resident Akiva Neuman has always appreciated the importance of physical fitness and given his willingness to tackle challenges head on, he decided on a whim to try out for American Ninja, a reality show that has participants facing daunting obstacle courses as they compete for the title and a significant cash prize. Priding himself on his athletic ability, Neuman decided to throw his hat into the ring, hoping to show the world that Orthodox Judaism and physical fitness are not mutually exclusive.

“I enjoy athleticism,” Neuman told The Jewish Link. “I enjoy competition. I enjoy challenges and I never let a challenge stop me from achieving greatness or success. I wanted to be a kiddush Hashem for Jewish people and for anyone who is looking to achieve greatness.”

His driven nature has already taken Neuman far. The 25 year old father of a baby boy, who now lives with his wife Chani in Queens, is a graduate of Yeshiva University’s Sy Syms School of Business and on his way to getting his semicha through Yeshiva University’s RIETS program. The former captain of his soccer and hockey teams in high school, Neuman found a way to immerse himself fully in his Torah studies during his two years at Yeshivat Shaalvim, learning for a full day before breaking at midnight to play one on one basketball with a friend.

While Neuman was one of dozens of competitors vying to make it through the qualifying round for American Ninja in Philadelphia, he had a strong feeling that he was one of just ten whose run through the course who would be featured on television along with their background stories.

“I hit it off with the producers and they clearly wanted to tell my story,” said Neuman. “I felt tremendous pressure to do well knowing that I was going to be on television. I knew that millions would see me and for some I would be the only Orthodox Jew they would ever see. I had the weight of the Jewish people on my shoulders as I walked to the course, hoping I was making a good impression.”

Neuman said that while producers were excited to portray him as the “Ninja Rabbi,” he would have walked away from the show if had he been asked to remove his yarmulka and tzitzis in competition.

“How could I represent the Jewish people without my Jewish garb?” asked Neuman.

Neuman was featured on the June 27th episode of American Ninja, with his yarmulka planted firmly on his head and his tzitzis at his sides as he took on the obstacle course. He made it successfully through three obstacles before losing his grip and falling into a pool of water at the end of the final obstacle.

If there is one takeaway from his American Ninja experience, Neuman hopes it will be the importance of making physical fitness a priority.

“We all have busy lives but everyone can find even ten minutes to exercise,” said Neuman. “You don’t need to be an American Ninja or to be on television, but ultimately, as Orthodox Jews it is our responsibility to take care of ourselves.”

Including even a short exercise session in the daily routine has ramifications that go beyond building muscles, said Neuman.

“When you are a methodical, scheduled person you become much more productive,” said Neuman. “My consistency in working out has only improved my consistency in learning and vice versa. Ultimately growth comes from pushing and overcoming challenges and that is true in working out and just as true in every single aspect of a person’s life.”

Yaakov Samuels is a beloved educator at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, teaching ninth and tenth grade history. The father of three girls, the 35 year old Samuels has had a lifelong interest in martial arts but over the last few years he found himself looking for a new challenge.

Spartan race challenges, which involve grueling conditions, certainly seemed to fit the bill. All about resilience, challenges and determination, Spartan is a demanding timed race that combines a variety of obstacles including mud, barbed wire, walls of varying heights and fires. While most mortals would never even consider taking on a Spartan, Samuels decided to go for it, locating a June 19th race on a mountain in nearby Tuxedo, New York.

Over the course of the 5.2 mile Spartan Sprint, Samuels found himself facing 21 different obstacles which involved scaling a twelve foot wall, carrying a 50 pound sandbag up and down a hill, throwing a spear into a target and rolling uphill under barbed wire.

“I wanted to push my body and mind to a whole new limit,” said Samuels. “It was the most incredible experience, but it was also, hands down, the toughest thing I have ever done.”

While some of the Spartan obstacles are the same in every race, others can vary.

“They involve upper body strength, lower body strength, endurance, speed and mental toughness,” said Samuels. “And most of those five miles were hills.”

Most Spartans are held on Shabbos, but there are a few that take place on Sundays, a plus for those who are shomer Shabbos. Samuels said he saw one other competitor on the course wearing a yarmulka.

The most difficult component of the race?

“You had to fill a bucket to the top with rocks and carry it uphill in a cradle position and then downhill,” said Samuels. “If any of the rocks fall out you have to start over. I don’t know how much it weighed but that was definitely the toughest obstacle.”

Crossing the finish line at Spartan was an exhilarating moment for Samuels.

“Once you get there, no matter how many people got there before you, all you can think is ‘wow, I finished this thing. I have achieved something most people have never even thought of doing,’” observed Samuels.

Spartan makes no secret of the difficulty of the course.

“They make you sign a waiver saying ‘be aware that death or serious injury may occur,’” said Samuels. “My wife is very supportive but she must have said over and over, ‘make sure you warm up and stretch, especially your ankles.’”

Having conquered the Spartan Sprint, Samuels is looking ahead to its bigger siblings, the Spartan Super, which involves an eight to ten mile course, and the Spartan Beast, a 12 to 14 mile race of epic proportions.

“Even though I could barely stand or breathe when I crossed the finish line, I automatically knew that I wanted to do it again,” said Samuels. (Want more Samuels the Spartan? Check out his personal essay in the sports section, on page 71.)

Take that, Clark Kent. Looks like the Supermen are here to stay.

By Sandy Eller

Sandy Eller is a freelance writer who writes for numerous websites, newspapers, magazines and many private clients. She can be contacted at [email protected].

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