If you were to picture a man about to become an Orthodox rabbi and accountant, the image of a pasty, frail guy, pouring over an endless tower of books might come to mind. And then there’s Akiva Neuman: a smiling, boundless ball of energy who does one-handed pull ups and cartwheels in between his Talmudic and taxation studies. Neuman, newly-married father of one is not just aiming to become an expert in Jewish law and tax code, this week he’ll be vying for the title of American Ninja Warrior on NBC’s hit TV show.
Neuman grew up in Highland Park, New Jersey in an athletic Orthodox Jewish family. “I played basketball when I was in elementary…in high school: basketball, soccer, and hockey.” Neuman didn’t stop at the typical team sports though, “I like to accomplish weird and crazy things while working out. I would do a cartwheel here, try to do a flip there, fall on my face there. Have fun with it.”
Neuman had no official way to channel his wild talents until a couple years ago when he was working out in the gym and “American Ninja Warrior” came on. “All of a sudden I’m glued to the TV. I’m just amazed by the athleticism at the obstacles at the competition.” He knew instantly that he would apply to be on the show.
Consisting of over one hundred competitors per location at five different locations throughout the country, obstacles are created that test competitors’ upper body strength, grip strength, stamina and endurance. The two hour episodes don’t just highlight the amazing feats competitors achieve on the course, but showcase their lives as well. “A lot of people have really inspiring stories. People that survived cancer that are there to show their children what they can do. It’s a family show that has exciting moments and more motivational, inspirational moments, that’s what makes it so unique.”
Neuman believes his religious observance is one of the reasons he was selected for the show. “They wanted to try to teach people and have a sense of diversity.” So what are one of the stereotypes Neuman hopes to break down? “Physical prowess is not what Orthodox Jews are known for [but] we have places in Tanach where…King David beats Goliath, we have Shimshon HaGibor, Samson, who was able to defeat entire armies by himself. There are plenty of people throughout Tanach who [embody athletic prowess].” Neuman cites modern examples too. “We could look to Israel and the Israeli army, and the strength of the Jewish People, not just in the book but also physically. We seek intellectual [pursuits] but that doesn’t limit us from being physical and athletic and capable of feats like this.”
More than rebranding Orthodox Jews to the world at large, Neuman hopes he can positively influence the Orthodox Jewish youth of today with his appearance. “I’m the youth director at the Young Israel in Holliswood, and I pride myself in teaching kids Torah and how to play soccer, or anything else that the kids want to learn. I hope that my story gets portrayed in that light..that you can be frum…you can learn a lot of Torah and you can also be a good ballplayer. They don’t contradict each other. They go hand in hand. You can spend some time exercising and taking care of yourself. The Torah says Venishmartem Meod LeNafshoseichem. You have to really take care of yourself. We have a commandment, a Torah obligation to take care of ourselves, not just mentally but also physically.”
Tune in to NBC tonight from 9-11pm to see the “Ninja Rabbi” run the course.