The Human Spirit: Knock-out
Jan. 18, 2013
The Egged bus he’d boarded in Givat Shaul moved slowly up Agrippas Street in downtown Jerusalem. The woman sitting beside him, let’s call her Yehudit Doe, was struggling to engage Yehuda Tatelbaum in friendly conversation in Hebrew.
Akiva Finkelstein, a religious yeshiva student and talented boxer, should be a poster boy for any international organization dedicated to equality and international cooperation.He learned to box in a bomb shelter. He shares sweat in the ring with Jews and Palestinians. He lives in the town of Beit El, but was last crowned Israel’s youth light welterweight champion in Kafr Yasif. Akiva Finkelstein, a religious yeshiva student and talented boxer, should be a poster boy for any international organization dedicated to equality and international cooperation.
Instead, the International Amateur Boxing Association has knocked him out. Specifically, he was disqualified from competing for the world youth championship because he wouldn’t be weighed in the conventional way, on an electronic scale, on Shabbat.
Finkelstein, a handsome, sweet-looking young man despite the many hours of pounding he receives each week, fell in love with boxing when he was in fifth grade. He’s the youngest of six children, son of a rabbi and a midwife, in a family with prodigious athletic talent. One sister is a champion swimmer, a brother is a champion wrestler. Akiva wanted a “serious, fighting sport,” and liked boxing best.
Training was available in Jerusalem. The city’s Boxing Club is an underground, two-room bomb shelter.
The entrance is through a parking lot among ungentrified apartment blocks in the Katamonim neighborhood.
It’s renowned as one of those quirky corners of coexistence that seem immune to the political tensions above ground.
Tashkent-born brothers and champion heavyweight boxers Eli and Gershon Luxemburg opened the club in 1981 to get kids off the street. Boxing turned out to be a popular pastime in the Holy City, attracting men and women, boys and girls, Jews and Arabs. No matter what’s happening on the streets of Jerusalem, below ground in the shelter, boxers slug it out in peace.
Finkelstein has been coming to practice several times a week for the past eight years. He’s learned how to bob and weave, to duck and jab in the square circle of boxing. He’s learned to do the one-two punch, under and over, and the uppercut. Most important, he’s learned to go the distance, not just finishing the round, but taking his matriculation exams, then the bus to Jerusalem, and then hours of grueling practice. He’s an honors student.
In the summers, his parents got together the funds to let him work out at Gleason’s World Famous Boxing Gym in Brooklyn, where Muhammad Ali trained.
He keeps a punching bag in his bedroom, and he runs the Beit El perimeter to keep in shape.
Doesn’t it hurt, I ask? “The adrenaline is running so you don’t feel the pain,” Finkelstein tells me. The light welterweight is no giant – 5’9” and 64 kilos.
Check old clippings about boxing in Jerusalem and Finkelstein’s name keeps popping up. From the beginning, he was noted as a rising talent. If the other Beit El dreamer, biblical Jacob, saw ladders, Finkelstein saw the ropes of the international championships.
Four months ago he fought his way to the Israeli national championship and that dream came true. He was invited to the AIBA Youth World Boxing Championships in Yerevan, Armenia.
Finkelstein is an observant Jew – not such a rare creature. The proposed secretary of the Treasury of the United States of America is one, too. Finkelstein doesn’t box on Shabbat. In competitions in Israel and abroad, when matches have fallen on Shabbat, he has been able to fight before sunset on Friday or after sundown on Saturday. For him, this has often meant spending Shabbat away from home and eating boxed lunches. For the organizers, it has meant consideration, respect and a little extra planning. But it had always worked out.
Until the AIBA championship.
FINKELSTEIN TRAVELED with the Israel team to Armenia.
Young boxers arrived from 70 countries and many cultural backgrounds. He felt good. There was a good chance he’d be coming home with a medal for Israel.
Thousands of fans crowded into the deluxe Karen Demirchayan Sports and Concerts Complex, that looks like a space ship.
Finkelstein checked the schedule. Good news. The competition included one Shabbat, but he was slated to box on Saturday evening, after sunset. He wouldn’t even have to request a schedule change.
Then came the complication. Each contestant had to weigh in each morning on the official electronic scale. That would be prohibited on Shabbat.
Akiva called his father, the rabbi.
“I was just about to leave to join him in Armenia,” said Rabbi Baruch Finkelstein. “Akiva was already there. Had we realized there would be a problem like this, Akiva would have declined the invitation. Still, we were hoping a good solution could be found.”
Rabbi Finkelstein approached the officials and explained his son’s dilemma. Then, he came up with a creative halachic solution for a tough spot. If a non- Jew lifted his son onto the scale, it would be okay for him to be weighed, following a talmudic principle called grama, or secondary cause. (Please, readers, let’s not argue this one or make it a precedent.) The officials shrugged. It was a little out of the ordinary, but the main thing was to make sure he hadn’t gained or lost weight. Problem solved.
When Saturday morning came around, the Israeli coach asked Akiva to go last. Rabbi Finkelstein waited outside. Suddenly he saw the official who had approved the arrangement. He was shaking his head.
“They won’t let him. I’ve been overruled,” he said.
Rabbi Finkelstein ran inside. There he met David Francis from Wales, treasurer of AIBA. Francis refused to let anyone lift Akiva onto the scale.
“I begged, and I tried to explain,” said Rabbi Finkelstein. “Francis asked me the strangest question: ‘What if I have a heavyweight boxer who is too heavy to be picked up?’ Then he insisted that Akiva pick me up, which he did easily. Then he asked me if the Jewish religion was at least a few hundred years old. When I said that it was thousands of years old, he said that electricity couldn’t have been predicted, that these rules of ours were absurd. Absurd, absurd, absurd, he kept saying.
Then he gave an ultimatum: either Akiva stepped onto the scale like everyone else or he’d close down the weighing and Akiva would be eliminated.”
According to Akiva, his Israeli coach also tried to convince him. It would only take a second, he said. They’d worked so long. They would never have brought him as a member of the team if they’d known he’d drop out. He was letting everyone down.
“Some of his fellow team members agreed. Others said I was right,” said Finkelstein.
Rabbi Finkelstein stepped aside. It had to be his son’s decision.
“I couldn’t do it,” said Akiva. “I just wasn’t going to desecrate the Sabbath.”
The weighing is over, declared Francis.
Finkelstein was dropped from the competition “I was in shock,” Finkelstein says, looking back. A month later, it’s still hard for him to talk about it. “All those years of effort. It was all over.”
That Shabbat Akiva and his father joined the handful of Jews who made up the city’s only synagogue congregation. There was no minyan, so they didn’t bother to open the Torah. From a book, Finkelstein chanted the Torah portion.
I couldn’t help thinking of the conflict last year in the United States when the Orthodox Robert M. Beren Academy of Houston reached the basketball finals in their league, the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools, (TAPPS). The game was scheduled on Shabbat, and TAPPS initially refused to tweak the timing, holding to its rule book. A social media campaign was followed by a traditional media campaign, and large public support. Only when a lawsuit was filed did the league agree to move the game to Saturday evening.
WHAT IS the Israeli take? I called the spokeswoman for our Culture and Sport Ministry. She didn’t know what I was talking about. It was so long ago, she said, that it was no longer relevant. And besides, “with all due respect to Judaism we can’t be involved in international rules.”
But then she had second thoughts, and contacted the Israel Boxing Association to find out why the incident hadn’t been reported. I’d already spoken to Dr. William Shahada, who heads the Israel Boxing Association.
He, too, seemed not to know about Finkelstein’s disqualification, but said the organization “frequently ran into such problems abroad.” “We don’t have the strength to make changes,” he said.
Did AIBA have regrets? I contacted AIBA headquarters in Switzerland and received the following reply: “Akiva Finkelstein indeed refused to get on the scale which resulted in his disqualification on the simple application of AIBA Technical & Competition Rules.”
Not so simple. He didn’t refuse. He had received permission ahead of time to be lifted onto the scale.
His Jewish beliefs were mocked.
The AIBA website boasts that it “has become a respected and model organization where efficiency, honesty and equality are ever-present.”
AIBA owes Akiva Finkelstein an apology, and more. The winning fighter in Finkelstein’s category is a teen named Kevin Hayler Brown from Cuba. I don’t know if Akiva Finkelstein can outbox him, but he certainly deserves a chance to try.
The lone athlete needs and deserves the support and intervention of our government and athletic organizations. I call on them to stand behind the beliefs of our athletes in Israel and abroad. The tiniest consideration can make all the difference.
And while I’m at it, I call on European organizations to stop lecturing us Israelis about being inflexible. Scales do matter. Scales of justice, too.
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