Dec 15, 2010

Dmitry Salita Interview

Orthodox Boxer Dmitry Salita is preparing for his IBA Welterweight fight which is happening tomorrow night. Virtual Jerusalem  interviewed Salita, and asked him questions about being Jewish, being Orthodox and being a boxer.

Going back to the time when your mother was sick. I understand that was along the same time when you grew more interested in the religious aspect of Judaism. Was that a slow process? Or did something happen that led to a domino effect?
It was a definitely slow process. My family came here from the former Soviet Union and Russian Jews are very proud Jews - and very sure of their Judaism but they're not practicing because it's not something they grew up with.
When i came to America, it was the first time I saw religious people walking on the street ever and in big numbers! On Saturday, it shuts down, you know? I wanted to know more about myself and more about where I came from. 
When I first started to get involved in Judaism , some of the experiences that I had weren't so positive because the people that I was dealing with didn't know how to communicate with Russian Jews that know about religion but they don't know about Judaism necessarily. 

Dmitriy Salita, Jimmy O Pharrow
Salita and Jimmy O'
So the experiences I had didn't motivate me to come back to learn more. Those organizations did not know how to deal with people like me and from my way of life. So I was 14, and when I was visiting my mother  I met this religious man who took my information to the Chabad house, to a Chabad rabbi, and after a few phone calls and us meeting, they very much appealed to me because they knew how to work with someone who came from my background. My Judaism grew very slowly. 

I grew up in a boxing club, and one of my mentors is my trainer, Jimmy O. Jimmy O is an old black man who grew up during segregation, so ever since I was young, I saw Jimmy preaching black pride in a healthy way and in a proper way. In me that strengthened my identity as a Jewish person, and I knew that when I'd get my success and have my 15 minutes of fame that I wanted to use it,  and whatever positive energy that I had to support Jewish causes, and to talk and to promote Judaism because I thought it was very  important and under-reported.  So 16 years later, now I'm involved in an organization called EZRA USA,  we have a youth center here in Brooklyn, NY, specifically for Russian Jews, and it serves the purpose of something I dealt with myself, which is to appeal to young Russian Jews and make them understand about Jewish life and Jewish culture,. in a way that works.

What are some ways in which you do that?
There's the Friday night dinner which is where a lot of young people get together for the Shabbos dinner, and it's in a fun interactive way. Part of the dinner is that a rabbi, or someone talks about the Parsha, gives a light [study for] 10-15 minutes. There's also a movie night where young people get together and hang out and watch movies about Jewish culture and things like that. It's a way for them to see that this organization talks to them. We have different events for holidays as well. For example, a recent event they did was on Chanukah -  they made gifts for Israeli kids with cancer. We do different things to get people involved and to educate them about Judaism in a way that will appeal to them. EZRA USA is connected to Russian birthright which sends kids to Israel for the first time. The youth center is their post trip location. (Visit their website
Have you encountered anti-Semitism in the boxing world, whether from other boxers or promoters or even audiences?
Anti-Semitism is not something that's new, and just because I box, it doesn't mean that I've become immune to it. I've definitely experienced anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism can be someone saying something derogatory about Jews in a open forum -  that's one thing, but sometimes people do things on a different level which is anti-Semitic in a way that it's a double standard  from more of an intellectual level... I've encountered it on different levels.
That must make your job harder.
Well yeah but that's what it is, it's part of life sometimes. America's the best country in the world because America discourages any kind of anti-anything. Regardless of what kind of discrimination it is. That's why to be in this country, and to have gotten the opportunities that I've gotten, and not fighting on the Sabbath and still to be able to do what I do - all that happened because American is such a great country.
In regards to not boxing on Shabbat, we heard that initially when you started, people told you it would never work, that you couldn't do both.
Jewish people told me this. 
Jewish people that are not observant, people I knew. They were thinking, you're a smart kid, go to school, don't waste your time and energy. it's not going to work out for you.
In retrospect, since it did work, what would you say to other young religious Jews starting out in equally unlikely industries?
I just read a great quote. It was a Chinese proverb that said: "People who say it can't be done, should not disturb the ones doing it." That's true. Listen, people sometimes say things, they just make comments that they don't give much thought to. I can talk about myself, I feel my blessing and my success came from my observance. My observance of Shabbos, it was difficult, but that's the order of the world! Over time it took creativity and perseverance, but I was able to reach great heights because of it, and with it and I feel much better about myself, and I feel that my blessing comes from not doing something on Saturday at 12, you know what I mean? 
The blessing of Jewish people comes from observing Judaism, and Shabbos is one of the major parts of Judaism because it's a declaration that God runs the world. We can rest and dedicate this day to Judaism and still do our thing. And I say this, but I also want to say that because you don't work on Shabbos, you still have to work hard the other six days a week. A rabbi told me once, it was one of the greatest things I've heard, "God loves nothing more than hard work." I feel like it's important to work hard on those 6 days and to dedicate yourself to whatever you're doing and rest on the 7th day

Interesting interview.

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