February 26, 2020

Orthodox Teen Lifts Weights, Peers’ Hopes

In the documentary “Supergirl,” Naomi Kutin, a Modern Orthodox tween, grunts as she hoists a barbell almost three times her body weight. Her face reddens, her veins pop and her eyes bulge with the effort.

It’s part of her training for yet another competition since she set the world record for women in the 97-pound-and-under class in 2012, when she squatted 215 pounds and beat the reigning 44-year-old champion.

What makes Kutin unique isn’t just her age or her jaw-dropping lifts (she set her first American record by squatting 143 pounds when she was just 8). She’s also an observant Jew who, in the film, is seen attending a yeshiva middle school while preparing for her bat mitzvah and picking out the perfect dress for that rite of passage.

Prompted by her father, Ed Kutin, who has powerlifted since his college days at MIT, Naomi began lifting weights in the third grade. “It makes me feel empowered,” Kutin, now 16, said in a telephone interview from her home in Fair Lawn, N.J.

When she first began to participate in the sport, it was a way for her to have fun and to bond with her father. These days, however, “I [also] try to realize that the strength I have comes from God, and I’m very thankful for it,” she said.

Jessie Auritt, the documentary’s filmmaker, was drawn to Kutin’s story after reading an article about her in the Forward newspaper in 2013. “It was the fact that she was from a Modern Orthodox family but yet was competing in this very nontraditional sport for young girls — particularly in my understanding of the Orthodox community,” said Auritt, who is Jewish and lives in Brooklyn. “Yet she was breaking these gender stereotypes in the very male-dominated sport of power lifting. I wanted to understand the juxtaposition of those things.”

In the film, her rabbi even compares her strength to that of the biblical Jacob.

As Auritt filmed Kutin from ages 11 to 14, she captured the challenges the family faced as observant Jews in the sport. Since most of the women’s competitions take place on Shabbat, Naomi had to obtain permission to lift with the men on Sundays. The family brings coolers full of kosher food to meets; one scene shows the Kutins celebrating Havdalah in their hotel room.

Then there is the matter of the singlet competitors are required to wear; the lower portion ends mid-thigh. Naomi “would never wear a skirt that short,” her mother, Neshama Kutin, said. “She wouldn’t be let out of the house that way.” But, she added, the competition rules are strict, and it would be dangerous to wear longer pants that could get caught on a weight during a lift.

Naomi’s Jewish community has been supportive of her powerlifting efforts; in the film, her rabbi even compares her strength to that of the biblical Jacob, who once rolled a boulder off the top of a well.

Naomi speaking to a fellow lifter at a contest
Credit: Carmen Delaney/Supergirl Film LLC

But some people have left snarky comments on Naomi’s Facebook page, referring to her as “butch” or faulting her parents for allowing her to lift such heavy weights at a young age, assuming that it could harm her health. Neshama Kutin told the Journal that she and her husband have been vigilant to ensure that Naomi’s health is on track.

Of the internet trolls, Naomi said, “at first they were just a shock. But then I realized that these people aren’t important in my life.”

The film also recounts how, while in the seventh grade, Kutin started to suffer from excruciating migraines that doctors did not associate with her lifting. “They were so painful,” she said. “I missed so much school, and there were times I couldn’t get off the couch.”

After almost a year of agony, doses of magnesium cured Kutin’s headaches.

She began weightlifting again in earnest, and even set records at the Pan American Games in Florida in July — including deadlifting 363 pounds while she weighed only 121 pounds.

All the while, she’s been volunteering for Jewish organizations that help children with special needs (her younger brother has autism). Kutin recently also traveled with her Orthodox youth group to Houston and New Orleans to help with hurricane relief efforts.

She’s considering majoring in exercise science when she attends college. No matter what happens next, she wants lifting to continue to be an important part of her life.

“I hope I can empower young women to see that following your dreams is a good thing,” she said.

“Supergirl” airs on KOCE, Southern California’s PBS station, at 10 p.m. Dec. 18.