At the qualifier of American Ninja Warrior, Akiva Neuman jumped and climbed through an arduous obstacle course wearing his kippah and tzitzit throughout the competition. Before he began the course, the 25-year-old rabbinical student was pacing nervously back and forth until he realized what he needed to do before he competed. He found a quiet spot and sat down to say the Shema. He turned to God to ask Him to help him through the obstacles.

“I wanted to talk to God at that moment. I wanted to thank Him for the tremendous opportunity He was giving me. And I also wanted to ask God to make my performance into a kiddush Hashem that would inspire Jews everywhere. I wanted people all over the world to see that spiritual growth and physical fitness can and should enhance each other.”

I wanted to ask God to make my performance into a kiddush Hashem that would inspire Jews everywhere.

Called #ninjarabbi for the competition, Akiva, who studies at Yeshiva University and is also in the middle of a master’s degree for taxation at St. John’s University at night, works as a synagogue youth director at the Young Israel of Holliswood in Queens every weekend. He is starting a full-time job at Deloitte this fall. The America Ninja Warrior episode that he competed in will be aired this Monday night on NBC.

A graduate of Yeshiva University, Akiva was drawn to American Ninja Warrior because he is not afraid to try new things even if it’s against all odds that he will make it.

The show is currently in its eighth season and gets approximately 7 million viewers for each episode. When he applied Akiva said, “I thought, what’s the worst that happens? I get rejected? So what?”

Consistency is Key

Akiva has always been athletic. He was the captain of the soccer and hockey teams at his yeshiva high school where he was also on the basketball team. But the degree of fitness required for American Ninja Warrior is intense; being accepted to the qualifying rounds is itself a challenge. More than 75,000 people applied to be on season eight of the show. But Akiva did not train extensively or for long hours to get on the show. He rarely goes to the gym. Instead, Akiva says that it is the consistency of the short workouts that he does every day that he has been doing since ninth grade that has primed his muscles for the kind of obstacles that he faced on the show.

It started when Akiva was captain of his soccer team in high school and they didn’t have many strong players. “I realized that I needed to train myself to be able to run the field for the entire 60 minutes of the game to get our team to a better place. So I figured out a way to do it. Every day. It’s the consistency that counts. I find that with my learning and my studies too. You can’t work out or just learn something once and then expect to change or grow. It doesn’t need to be a huge commitment, but it needs to be consistent.”

And that’s also the way that Akiva integrates fitness into his daily life. For example, Akiva will use the pull up bar every day to entertain his baby or he will run the five blocks each evening to his parked car instead of walking.

Pushing the Envelope

To apply for the show, Akiva Neuman sent in a video of him sitting with an open Talmud and surrounded by religious books. It shows him working out at home, where he does most of his training including push- ups with his 6-month-old son, Yaakov Shmuel. And Akiva makes sure to keep the kids in his synagogue super active with boot camps and sports and anything that keeps them (and him) moving. Members of his synagogue came to cheer Akiva on in Philadelphia with signs that said “Team Akiva” and “American Ninja Warrior” in Hebrew. By wearing his kippah during the competition Akiva recognizes that he is representing Jews everywhere, and he considers this a source of pride and of tremendous responsibility.

Watch Akiva’s American Ninja Warrior submission video:

“People think exercise takes away your energy. But it’s not true. It gives you more energy. More focus. More ability to learn and grow.” And Akiva points out that we only grow when we push ourselves past what we accomplished yesterday, whether in learning or in fitness. It’s the last five push-ups out of 80 that count if you did 75 the day before. It’s the next step in your learning or growth that challenges you and transforms you. Don’t be afraid to push yourself past your comfort zone. That’s where the growth is.

When I asked Akiva if he was nervous during the obstacle course, he admitted that it was very nerve racking, but he said, “I focused on knowing that I have done this before. And so I can do it again. I live and compete like everything is possible because it is. There’s nothing that I can’t do, it’s just a matter of time and focus. So at a certain point I just said to myself ‘I got this, let’s run this course.’”

Akiva Neuman with his wife, Chani, and son, Yaakov Shmuel.

This kind of self-confidence Akiva traces back to a moment when he was 10-years-old in a museum with his family. They were looking at an exhibit of an old printer which printed out a page for Akiva with the following quote: “Never let it rest till your good is better and your better best.”

Akiva has kept that page since that day. Perhaps that’s what it means to be a true warrior. To always do your best. To learn. To grow. To climb. Every day. And then to step back before you go and thank the One who gives us the strength to overcome the obstacles within and on the courses of all of our lives. Day in and day out. Akiva Neuman, the ninja rabbi, teaches us all to reach for that kind of greatness.