Pesach is the time of redemption and salvation, which can often come from the most unexpected sources. Such is the story of a boxing title fight in Yankee Stadium that launched a young boy from Russia on a journey to discover his Jewish heritage in Israel.
Following the fall of the Iron Curtain, Jews streamed out of the Soviet Union heading to greener pastures, especially Israel and America. They succeeded in rebuilding their lives, but seven decades of religious persecution left them ignorant of even the most fundamental tenets of Judaism.
In December 1990 the Karliner Rebbe of Jerusalem took note of the problem. One Wednesday he called in Rabbi Moshe Weiss, the Mashgiach of the Karliner Yeshiva. He gave him an ambitious mission – to start a high school for Russian Jewish boys. His deadline – that Sunday morning.
After picking himself up off of the floor, Rabbi Weiss began to meet the challenge. He found a building in Bayit Vegan, borrowed tables and chairs from a nearby school and put ads in Russian language newspapers. At first a trickle of students joined.
The school, the Lezion B’rina Institute, now has a beautiful sprawling campus in Beitar. Its students study religious subjects in the morning and secular subjects in the afternoon. They come from homes with little knowledge of Judaism and all graduate with a greater appreciation of their religion.
Hundreds of students have passed through the school’s doors and many have become observant. Following graduation they go on to join the IDF, yeshivos gedolos or trade schools and universities in Israel. An affiliated girls’ school located in Jerusalem, Bat Zion, has similarly helped many Russian girls.
In 2010 the entire student body of Lezion B’rina, and every Russian home throughout the world, had one name on their lips: boxer Yuri Foreman. He grew up in Gomel, the second-largest Jewish community in Belarus. As a young boy he realized his fighting skills could keep anti-Semitic bullies away. He soon discovered that his agility and boxing prowess could become a career as well.
Yuri moved first to Israel and then to Brooklyn. He trained and entered the professional circuit in 2002. He quickly moved up the ranks, remaining undefeated in 29 fights. At the same time he was becoming observant. Along the way he made a commitment to never fight on Shabbat. That personal pledge, combined with his Jewish pride that he literally wears (in the form of a Magen David on his boxing shorts), made him an inspiration for Jews around the world.
Rabbi Josh Friedman is a graduate of Yeshiva University and the Director of Development of Lezion B’rina. He saw Yuri as an amazing role model for the students of the school and the two men struck up a very warm friendship.
On June 5, 2010 Yuri had his big fight in Yankee Stadium for the Middleweight Division title. It made him a household name throughout many Russian communities. The fight was later than usual on a Saturday night and Yuri spent Shabbat in a nearby hotel.
The students of Lezion B’rina produced a video wishing Yuri success in his fight. On the Thursday before the match Rabbi Friedman e-mailed him the video.
Yuri e-mailed him back later that day to thank him for the chizuk before his fight. Though he would go on to lose the match, he has remained a favorite son to Russian Jews. He has continued on his own path of Jewish growth and is currently studying for smicha.
Outside Moscow lived a young Jewish boy named Sasha. He knew he was Jewish and was proud to be so, but knew very little about his religion. And so when Yuri Foreman came on the scene, he fanned the spark of Jewish pride in Sasha.
One day, shortly after the big fight, Sasha was searching on the Internet for any information he could find on Yuri. He stumbled across the video produced by the boys of Lezion B’rina on the school’s website. He had never heard of the school. The video touched him, and when at the end when the video there appeared an e-mail address for Misha Ziloniy, the head of recruitment for the school, Sasha e-mailed him for more information about the video and Lezion B’rina.
Misha travels frequently throughout the former Soviet Union to meet potential students and their families, and to run seminars about how Lezion B’rina and Bat Lezion are providing students with a brighter future. On his next trip to Moscow he arranged a meeting with Sasha who jumped at the chance to travel to Israel to learn more about his heritage. He was accepted and has been a student in Lezion B’rina ever since. He is quickly advancing on his journey to discover more of his Jewish identity.