Meet the Orthodox ‘American Ninja Warrior’ training to be a rabbi


Like his fellow competitors on “American Ninja Warrior,” 25-year-old Akiva Neuman pushed himself to his physical limits — climbing, jumping and running through an intense obstacle course — in the hopes of making it to the national finals in Las Vegas.

But unlike the dozens of athletes who competed with him at the Philadelphia qualifiers, which will air June 27 on NBC, Neuman prepared by saying the Shema. He also wore tzitzit and a kippah throughout the competition.

Dubbed #ninjarabbi for the occasion, Neuman is an Orthodox Jew and rabbinical student at Yeshiva University. He will finish his smicha while he starts a full-time job at Deloitte in the fall —  yes, in addition to “Ninja” training and studying to be a rabbi, Neuman is also pursuing a master’s degree in taxation at St. John’s University.

 

Tune in to watch the sure-to-be compelling profile of Neuman — after all, the show’s emotional, behind-the scenes stories have been parodied by Drake on “Saturday Night Live” — and to witness his supporters cheering “rabbi, rabbi,” while he shows off his strength, speed and agility.

As of press time, we don’t know whether or not Neumanwho lives in New York, makes it to Vegas. In the meantime, read on for six interesting facts about the “ninja rabbi.”

He found out about the show while at the gym.

Neuman was working out at the gym with a friend when he saw “American Ninja Warrior” for the first time. (The show, which was based on a Japanese competition, is now in its eighth season in the U.S. and has something of a cult following. In fact, The Wall Street Journal recently asked “Is ‘American Ninja Warrior’ the Future of Sports?”)

“It had my name written all over it — it’s competitive and athletic, but it’s not cutthroat, and there’s a certain level of camaraderie required,” Neuman tells JTA. (The coaches, contestants and viewers cheer each other on.)

“I thought, what’s the worst that happens? I get rejected? So what?”

Neuman also figured that being an Orthodox Jew could be his hook. He submitted a video that showed him sitting with an open Talmud surrounded by religious books; it also shows him rock climbing and running.

“I love ‘American Ninja Warrior,’” he says in his video. “But I also do this stuff because if I didn’t I’d be onshpilkes!”

But most of his working out is done at home.

Neuman says he’s always been athletic and competitive; he was the captain of the soccer and hockey teams at his yeshiva high school, where he also played basketball. But considering that he’s studying for his master’s and rabbinical ordination — and he has a young child at home — his workouts usually have to be done early in the morning or at night.

“I’m probably only working out four or five hours a week, but to build muscle it’s all about consistency, even if you’re just doing a little at a time,” he says.

In Neuman’s must-watch submission video, he’s seen at home making impressive use of a pull-up bar and doing pushups while his 6-month-old son, Yaakov Shmuel (aka Koby), reclines on an activity mat.

And he really does that stuff, he tells us.

“Just 10 minutes a day of physical activity can change your attitude, your health, and it gives you more energy,” he says.

He’s also a synagogue youth director — with an athletic streak.

“I have my days, nights and weekends covered,” says Neuman, who in addition to studying works as the youth director at the Young Israel of Holliswood in a suburban Queens neighborhood.

He’s known for getting the kids active.

“We usually start with a game, so the kids can connect, and then we go from there,” moving on to prayer or studying texts, Neuman says.

On Yom Ha’atzmaut he organized an Israeli army-style boot camp for the kids.

“He is always combining physical activity with Torah in ways that motivate and inspire the kids,” says Ronit Farber, a member of the synagogue.

“The first time we met Akiva, we had him and his wife for dinner,” says Rachel Klein, another Young Israel congregant who was one of several community members who traveled to Philadelphia to cheer on Neuman with posters that said “Team Akiva,” as well as “American Ninja Warrior” in Hebrew letters. “After dinner, his wife had to drag him home because he was busy playing soccer with our kids all over our house.”

Neuman is also a star performer in the annual Purim shpiel, adds Klein, “dazzling the audience every year with his dance moves, flips, tricks and splits.”

Akiva Neuman, center, with his wife, Chani, and son, Yaakov Shmuel. Photo by Emuni Z.

He takes the fact that he’s representing Jews seriously.

“I know that the general feeling is that Orthodox Jews aren’t fit — especially not rabbis. And I wanted to show that that’s not always the case,” Neuman says.

But he knows that by wearing religious garb while filming — it was his idea, and the show was fine with it — he instantly becomes a national symbol of observant Jews.

“I bear it with great responsibility, and I’m also really nervous about it,” he says.

That’s part of the reason Neuman said the Shema right before he started the course.

“I wanted one more experience to be closer to God, and was thinking, ‘You have to help me through this, because I’m not just doing it myself,’” he says.

He sees physical fitness as a matter of Jewish principle.

“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,” Neuman says.

“There’s a commandment that says we have to guard our souls, and the Rambam [Maimonides] 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.”

Athleticism runs in the family — hopefully.

Neuman and his wife, Chani, grew up near each other in Highland Park, New Jersey. She’s sporty, too.

“When we were dating, we used to go to Dave and Buster’s a lot,” he says. “She always beat me in basketball.

“We keep joking that next year it’ll be the rebbetzin’s turn,” he adds.

And the two are banking on the fact that their athleticism will carry on to the next generation.

“We’re waiting for him to crawl first, but as soon as that happens, we’ll have a soccer ball at his feet,” he says of Koby. “We’re actually hoping he runs before he walks.”

Fascinating wedding facts


It happens like some sort of divine intervention. You’re single, depressed and desperate for a relationship, but just as you hit rock bottom, when you’ve given up all hope, the right person makes a grand entrance into your life.

If you think you’ve met the perfect mate, someone who has mastered the art of charming spontaneity, romance, weekend getaways—and can cook and likes doing dishes—then maybe you’re ready to take the next big step: marriage.

But before you take the plunge, consider these fun facts; they won’t change your mind, but they may help put the experience in a lighter perspective.

National Numbers

  • More than 2.2 million marriages were conducted in the United States in 2005. (Center for Disease Control and Prevention and The National Center for Health Statistics)

  • The average age for brides is 27, and 29 is the average for grooms. (The Knot Wedding Network’s Real Wedding Survey 2007)

Vegas Numbers

  • There were 107,175 weddings performed in Las Vegas in 2007. (Clark County Recorder)

  • But only 106,789 marriage licenses were issued. (Clark Country Marriage License Bureau) That leaves a difference of 385 more marriages than licenses, which might be vow renewals, polygamists or lazy drunk couples.

  • Las Vegas brides have the shortest engagements at 9.1 months. (The Knot Wedding Network’s Real Wedding Survey 2007)

The Ring

  • The average engagement ring cost: $4,225. (The Knot Wedding Budget Study)

The Dress

  • The average cost of a wedding gown: $1,317 (New York City brides spend the most at $2,206). (The Knot Wedding Network’s Real Wedding Survey 2007)

  • Wedding dresses featured in the window of Monique Lhuillier, located on Melrose Place in West Hollywood, can range from $4,000 to $12,000. Celebrities like Eva Longoria, Ashley Simpson and Eli Manning’s wife Abby McGrew have all worn Monique’s Lhuillier dresses, according to a store clerk.

The Budget

  • The average cost of a wedding, including the honeymoon, is $32,660. (The Knot Wedding Network’s Real Wedding Survey 2007)

The Gifts

  • Luckily, wedding expenditures aren’t limited to the bride and groom – more than 90 percent of couples have at least one gift registry, and most have two or three different registries. The most popular gifts are tabletop and kitchen products. (The Knot Inc. Market Research for Weddings 2005-2008)

The Guests

  • The average guest list is 153 (Wisconsin brides have the largest weddings, averaging 189 invitees). (The Knot Wedding Network’s Real Wedding Survey 2007)

Jay Firestone is an unmarried 23-year-old male and in the past three years he has been in three wedding parties, two of which for his sisters, and he will be in yet another this fall.

7 Days in the Arts


Saturday the 30th



Funny Jewess Rita Rudner takes a break from her regular Vegas shtick to entertain us Angelenos this evening. Pepperdine’s Smothers Theatre hosts the comedian before she returns to the City o’ Sin for a new contract with Harrah’s on Oct. 2.



8 p.m. $65. 24255 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu. (310) 506-4522.


Sunday the 1st


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Wednesday the 4th



Still some time for some “Summertime.” The Gershwins’ classic American opera, “Porgy and Bess,” plays tonight and tomorrow night as part of the opening celebration for the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall at Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Hear arias, including “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and “I Loves You, Porgy,” through the hall’s impressive acoustics.
8 p.m. $50-$140. 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. (800) 346-7372.



” target=”_blank”>www.unknowntheater.com.


Friday the 6th



Inspired by the essay “The Grey Zone,” written by Primo Levi, Tim Blake Nelson penned a play and screenplay of the same name, telling the obscure story of the Sonderkommandos-Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz/Birkenau who worked in the gas chambers in exchange for better treatment. The controversial film was released in 2001, and the play now makes its Los Angeles debut in a guest production at Deaf West Theatre.



Sept. 29-Nov. 5. $20-$30. 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. (800) 838-3006.



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Oy Veygas


Forget low-season hotel packages. Forget high-roller comps. Forget time sharing. The best deal for me in Vegas was not at the

Venetian, Bellagio or Caesar’s Palace. It was in Desert Shores, about 12 miles from the strip, in the fast-growing Vegas Jewish community.

Luckily — since luck is the name of the game here — a good friend of mine, Jennifer, had invited me to spend Shabbat with her family in this idyllic, red-roofed suburban enclave. I got a great, free room in her large, two-story home, a huge step above her old place in Tarzana.

“My condo in Tarzana was appraised at more than double the original price, which at that time was the price of a beautiful home in Vegas,” said Jennifer, explaining part of the logic behind the family’s move two years ago.

It’s more than just cheaper real estate that prompted Jennifer, her husband, her kids, her parents and other Jewish families to try their luck in Vegas. She also likes an up-and-coming Jewish community that is less institutionalized and much cozier.

“It’s just more open,” she said. “People don’t judge you for your religious levels. You can feel comfortable in your own skin. There are a lot of Jews from different walks of life. You’d think there would be a whole bunch of wierdos, but they’re not.”

It seems only natural that people near “sin city” would have more open religious attitudes, but Sukkot was the real test for Jennifer, who considers herself Modern Orthodox.

“Sukkot was always great with my family in L.A., and I was afraid I wasn’t going to enjoy it in Vegas. But every single night there was a party at someone else’s house. Rabbis went sukkah hopping with kids. I had dozens of kids in my sukkah,” she said.

Shabbat under Jennifer’s desert sukkah was among the friendliest and liveliest I’ve experienced in a long time. She had 30 people over, most of them young couples with kids.

I spent most of my time talking to the only other single there, Yoni, who works as a manager at a major hotel.

He pointed out that there are many influential Jews in local business and politics. Jews helped to create Vegas, and they continue to develop it. Sheldon Adelson owns the Venetian Hotel; Steve Wynn recently completed his $2.8 billion Wynn Resort; the Greenspun family owns major Vegas media outlets; Oscar Goodman is the mayor; and Shelly Berkeley is a Vegas congresswoman.

And Yoni is an Orange County transplant who loves Vegas.

“You get the big city on Las Vegas Boulevard, and then you drive 10 minutes away to the middle of suburbia,” he said. Still, “Sometimes it’s tough to meet a ‘nice Jewish girl’ in Vegas because there aren’t that many Jewish singles here.”

Jennifer’s brother, Richie, had better luck. He hit the jackpot and married a beautiful Israeli woman. According to some estimates, there are about 8,000 Israelis in Vegas, almost 10 percent of the rapidly rising Jewish population, which stands roughly at 80,000.

Jennifer’s husband, Jeff, said that once construction on a new two-story, $4 million synagogue is complete in his neighborhood, more Jews will come out of the woodwork. Congregants currently daven at a makeshift storefront synagogue, and nearby is a neighborhood pub/casino, a lakefront French restaurant and a day spa. One shul member pre-orders massages and spends Shabbat afternoon at the spa. The first Jewish community high school is in the works, thanks in part to a $25 million donation from the Adelson family.

Jennifer and her husband hope that the new synagogue will attract out-of-towners looking to buy a home near the shul. You see, Jennifer’s betting her chips on real estate. She and her husband, who holds a law degree, each have obtained a real estate license.

But there is only so much Shabbat that one can handle in Vegas. Jennifer and I scored when a shul member we met at a Shabbat lunch got us free Saturday night tickets for the $120-per-seat Cirque De Soleil show at the Wynn. As a marketing director for various Strip venues, she also got on the guest list of Bellagio’s exclusive nightclub, Light.

On our night out, we lost $45 between us.

After a night of drinking and dancing at Light, I couldn’t help but wonder what will happen when the children of all these Vegas Jewish families hit puberty.

“In every town that you move to, there’s always the possibility kids will fall to temptation,” Jennifer said. “It all depends on the values they learn. It’s no different than keeping them away from the Sunset Strip.”

Orit Arfa is a writer living in Tel Aviv. She can be reached at arfa@netvision.net.il.

 

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