Published On: Sat, Jul 9th, 2016

Orthodox ‘Ninja Rabbi’ takes US by storm

Decked out in a kippa and tzitzit, rabbinical student Akiva Neuman walked up to the extra elaborate obstacle course of the reality show “American Ninja Warrior” and became an internet sensation, as the hashtag #ninjarabbi started trending; ‘I know that the general feeling is that Orthodox Jews aren’t fit—especially not rabbis, ’ Said Neuman. ‘I wanted to show that that’s not always the case.’

Akiva Neuman (Photo Mitchell Leff,   NBC)

At 25, Akiva Neuman’s résumé reads like every Jewish mother’s dream, as a graduate student specializing in taxation who is finishing his rabbinical studies at the prestigious Yeshiva University. This week, however, Neuman became the teenage dream for quite a few American girls (and boys), Jewish and otherwise, after he passed the difficult obstacle course on the popular reality show “American Ninja Warrior.” An instant media sensation, Neuman was quickly nicknamed “Ninja Rabbi.”

As Neuman went through each stage of the obstacle course, audience members cheered him on with calls of “Rabbi, Rabbi.” Throughout the course and the preceding interviews, he kept his kippa and traditional tzitzit on, as everyday symbols of his faith.

 

American Ninja Warrior - Season 8

 

Neuman has always been athletic, he was captain of the soccer and hockey teams in high school. Nevertheless, when it came time to decide on a career, he found himself gravitating toward Torah learning, and so he packed up his belongings and moved to Kibbutz Sha’alvim to study at its yeshiva for two years. Even then, athleticism remained in his blood, and late at night he would go out and play one-on-one basketball with a friend.

Speaking to Tablet Magazine, Neuman said that “There’s a commandment that says we have to guard our souls. And the Rambam elaborates that we’re also commanded to take care of our bodies. We’re scoring points by exercising, and fulfilling what God wants of us.”

“We’re the people of the book, and that’s our focus. My intellectual growth—both in terms of my Torah learning and secular learning—is the focus for me, too. But we also need to take care of ourselves physically.”

 

Akiva Neuman competing in American Ninja Warrior. (Mitchell LeffNBC (2)

 

One day, while he was working out at the gym, Neuman saw an episode of “American Ninja Warrior” and decided to go for it. “I thought, what’s the worst that can happen? I get rejected? So what?” And so he signed up online and used his rabbinical status as an angle to pique the producers’ interest.

Participating in “American Ninja Warrior” is not just a personal accomplishment for Neuman, but also a chance to show that Orthodox Judaism can build on physical strength, as well. “I know that the general feeling is that Orthodox Jews aren’t fit—especially not rabbis. And I wanted to show that’s not always the case.” Neuman takes representing his faith very seriously. “I bear it with great responsibility, and I’m also really nervous about it.”

 

Neuman with wife,   Chani,   and son,   Yaakov Shmuel (Photo Emuni Z)

 

Neuman shared that his family has been very supportive of him. His fans, though, will have to be satisfied by seeing him perform on the show, as Neuman is married and the father of a baby boy.

“Good better best, Never let it rest, till your good is better and your better best” is the motto Neuman says he lives by. Now all that is left is to see if he makes it to the show’s finals in Las Vegas.

Eli Mandelbaum

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