Philadelphia, PA – He may be known as a rabbinical student at Yeshiva University, Abba to his son Koby and as the youth director at the Young Israel of Holliswood in Queens, but these days, Akiva Neuman is most closely associated with the title “Ninja Rabbi.”
The 25 year old Neuman, who grew up in Highland Park, New Jersey, took part in the Philadelphia qualifying match for American Ninja, a sports competition reality television show, making his way through a challenging obstacle course proudly wearing his yarmulka and tzitzis.
Now entering its eighth season, American Ninja contestants compete in a series of courses hoping for a chance to compete in the show’s Las Vegas finals on a physically grueling, four stage obstacle course consisting of over 20 challenges. The ultimate goal? A $1 million cash prize.
A 2015 graduate of the Sy Syms School of Business who holds a degree in accounting and is a current semicha student at the Yeshiva Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, Neuman professed to a long love of sports in an interview with Yeshiva University News.
“Staying in shape has always had a value to me and it’s always been one of my strengths,” said Neuman, who was captain of his high school soccer and hockey teams and also played basketball.
Neuman discovered American Ninja while working out at the gym and after submitting an online application, producers asked him to submit two videos, one telling about himself and the other demonstrating his physical prowess. Neuman said that the program typically showcases a wide variety of individuals, which may have been part of his appeal.
“In me they had an Orthodox Jew training to be a rabbi,” said Neuman. “They were intrigued by my story because the show tries to go for all sorts of characters and personalities.”
In his submission video, which showed him alternately learning Gemara and bench pressing his infant son, Neuman said he hopes to bust the stereotype of pot bellied rabbis.
“Being a rabbi and being in shape is not a contradiction,” said Neuman.
While Neuman’s American Ninja adventure aired on Monday night, it was actually recorded on May 27th. He recalls little of his time on the course other than the chants of “rabbi, rabbi,” that accompanied him through a range of obstacles that included navigating floating steps, swinging from ropes and launching himself off a trampoline onto a dangling tube suspended high in the air.
Dressed in a light blue t-shirt showing a man with bulging biceps holding an open sefer Torah over his head, Neuman adjusted his tzitzis several times throughout his run. American Ninja announcers made several good natured comments including “don’t get your yarmulka wet!” and “somebody sing a lullaby for the rabbi,” just before Neuman lost his grip and plunged into a pool of water, ending his American Ninja dreams, at least for this year.
Neuman said he has gotten a lot of positive comments about his moment in the spotlight and while he will be starting an accounting job at Deloitte in the fall, he has his sights set on competing in a triathlon. He hopes that his experience will inspire others in their own physical fitness goals, even on a smaller scale.
“I want to be an inspiration for everyone, especially the Jewish people, encouraging them that even in the midst of our very busy lives, there is still room to care of ourselves physically and uphold the words of the Torah, which teaches us to take care of our bodies,” said Neuman.