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Ukrainian-American Boxes Religiously

  • Jon Kalish

Most American sports fans would have a hard time coming up with the names of Jewish athletes. Some might remember baseball greats Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg. Those who follow the Olympics would know gold-medalist swimmer Mark Spitz. Others might be familiar with professional wrestling superstar 'Goldberg.' They probably wouldn't be able to think of a single Jewish boxer. But Dmitriy Salita -- a devoutly religious Jew -- is planning to change that.

His journey to the ring began when his family left Odessa for New York, settling in a Brooklyn neighborhood not far from other Russian Jewish immigrants. It was a difficult transition for Dmitriy, then 9. "It wasn't easy," he recalls. "You don't speak English. You don't wear clothes that's called cool or hip. And kids pick on you, kids make fun of the way you speak and the way you dress. You're the new kid on the block. You don't know what is what. I think most kids probably go through that. When kids used to pick on me, I used to get in a lot of fights because I wouldn't take anything. But bit by bit, I I learned. My English got better. I adjusted to the culture and some of the kids I fought with became friends. I think most people have to go through the initiation process, so to say."

When Dmitriy was 13, he took up boxing at a club in a massive Brooklyn housing project called Starret City. He remembers it as a melting pot, "a kind of micro-society of New York City," as he puts it. "There are people there from all different walks of life, training and working together. And for the period of time that they're in the gym, they're all the same and they're all helping each other out, trying to accomplish a similar goal."

Shortly after Dmitriy started boxing, his mother developed cancer. While visiting her at the hospital, he met the husband of the woman who shared her room. He was a rabbi, and encouraged Dmitriy to come to a synagogue in his neighborhood. As the young man began to explore his Jewish roots, he gradually became more observant. He started studying with a Chasidic rabbi. Now he strictly observes the Jewish Sabbath and dietary laws. And, he still boxes. That's just fine with his rabbi, Zalman Liberow, who says "[Dmitriy] understands that even in such a sport, you can serve God in the greatest way." The rabbi says the young boxer is reaching other young people that he can't. "So in a way we're bringing heaven down to earth. Dmitriy agrees that the ring is not heaven, right? It's earth. Okay, but when he comes into the ring, it's heaven."

Dmitriy's bouts draw religious Jews who would never attend a boxing match if it wasn't one of their own fighting. Rabbi Liberow, whose brother serves as Dmitriy's manager, is pleased that the young boxer has agreed to make public appearances encouraging other young Jews to be observant. "Each punch of his, ultimately, is spreading Judaism," the rabbi says. "I wouldn't be able to explain it until we saw the reality. The reality is that he is a pillar of light and an example for many children, many youth who have all different trials and obstacles. And he shows them an example that you can overcome."

So far, Dmitriy Salita is undefeated and is considered an up and coming prospect in the Junior Welterweight Division. Last year, he met President George W. Bush at a White House Chanukah celebration. And he's just signed a deal with boxing promoter Lou Dibella, who sees great things ahead for him. "I believe in Dmitriy Salita. I believe in him as a fighter. I think he could be a champion. But I believe in him even more as a person. That's why I think he could be a champion. And this is a business where it's not just about guts and skill. It's very much about character. And this kid has guts and skill and character."

'This kid' also has big dreams. Dmitriy Salita wants nothing less than to be a world champion. "If I wouldn't feel that I could accomplish the things that I want to accomplish, I wouldn't box because I don't want to be average and I don't want to stop halfway. I want to, God willing, accomplish the goals that I've set for myself. And you've got to set the bar as high as it can go."