Syrian and Jordanian boxers at the Pan-Arab Games 311 (R).
(photo credit: Amr Dalsh / Reuters)
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
FINKELSTEIN TRAVELED with the Israel team to
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
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.”
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
“They won’t let him. I’ve been overruled,” he said.
Finkelstein ran inside. There he met David Francis from Wales, treasurer of
AIBA. Francis refused to let anyone lift Akiva onto the scale.
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
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
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,
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
beliefs were mocked.
The AIBA website boasts that it “has become a
respected and model organization where efficiency, honesty and equality are
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.
is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She
serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s
Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.