Glove Story: Two Orthodox Girls' Journey From Religious School to Boxing Glory

American-born Nili Block and Mumbai native Sarah Avraham say their religious background will not block the path to even loftier goals in this traditionally masculine sport.

One Sunday evening last month, two 18-year-old girls were kicking punching bags at the Jerusalem sports center, located beneath the stands at Teddy Stadium. Nili Block, long-limbed, lean and muscular, in a blue tank top and black sweatpants, was hunched over a red bag. Her ponytail waving wildly, strands of hair plastered to her perspiring face, she flayed it with her legs in a blur of furious precision. On the other side of the gym, Sarah Avraham, tall and athletic, ran to a punching bag, hugged it and leaned her head against it, then leaped up and kneed it ruthlessly.

Training alongside them on the blue-and-red mattresses that pad the gym were about 20 young men, ranging in age from 13 to 30. In addition to Block and Avraham, there was only one other girl. The place is stuffy, pungent with the odor of sweat. The girls’ Thai boxing practice session lasted an hour and a half, and also included running, stomach exercises and simulated fights with the men in which “successful” punches and kicks are noted down in writing instead of being delivered for real. Block’s adversary grabs her leg. She falls down and gets up with a smile.

“Careful! Careful!” the trainer, Eddie Yusupov warns him. “Come on, Nili − push, push, push!” Block is in fact injured and is not supposed to exercise her legs for another week, but when Yusupov shouts “Sprint!” she lowers her head and races for the wall. “Never mind,” she says, in a rare break between one drill and the next. “No pain, no gain.”

Sarah Avraham is the 2013 Israeli champion in Thai boxing for women and also now the world champion in her weight class (57-63 kilos). At the same time − at the 10th Amateur / Pro-Am Muay Thai Championships in Bangkok last March − Nili Block became the world champion in the flyweight class (50.5-53.5 kilos), and afterward also in kickboxing. But these champions do not lead glamorous lives. At 9 P.M., after the training session in Jerusalem, Block will travel for two hours in a series of buses to her home outside the city, in the religious neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh, while Avraham hitchhikes to Kiryat Arba, south of Jerusalem. (“I can’t takes buses all the time − it’s too expensive,” she explains.)

This is their routine five times a week. Until about a month ago, on top of their training the two also attended an ulpana, a high school for Orthodox girls. Avraham immigrated from India four years ago with her family, who are converts to Judaism. Her dream is to succeed in international tournaments and to complete her matriculation. Block’s dream is to take part in the Olympic Games of 2016 in Rio de Janeiro − assuming Muay Thai is recognized as an Olympic sport; if not, she would like to participate as a regular boxer.

They train with each other, but mainly with young men. “Training with girls is a bit lame,” Avraham says. “If it’s just to stay in shape, then fine. But I compete, so it’s different. I have to train hard, really hard.”

“I’ve always had up to five girls training in Thai boxing,” Yusupov says. “Most of them do it to stay in shape and for self-confidence. The only ones who want to compete are Sarah and Nili.”

Do they have a chance to go far?

Yusupov: “It’s too soon to say. They are only 18 and haven’t been training very long. Nili is a very strong boxer. She also has the right approach, always threatening, and she has a very powerful punch. She is determined and reaches her goal. If she wants to, she will get there. Sarah also does very good work in her style. She has tremendous legs and she’s flexible − she reaches the head with her kicks. It’s very impressive when Sarah goes into battle. There is no one in Israel to rival her in her weight category.” (The video shows Nili in the ring.)

Football and boxing

Three days after the training session in Jerusalem, Nili, at home, wearing 3/4-length jeans and a short blouse, looks more like a regular 18-year-old than a terror of the ring. The visitor can now also see that she has green eyes and smiles a lot. Sitting on the sofa in the living room, opposite the front door, is a woman in a bicycle outfit, complete with helmet and sunglasses, who hurls a withering look at everyone who enters. It takes me a second to realize that this is a mannequin, dressed and put there, it turns out, by Nili’s mother, Rina. The living room walls are painted green with pink flowers. Parked by the stairs are three bikes, all of which belong to Rina.

Rina herself enters in the middle of the interview. A slim woman with large green eyes, she is wearing a gray bike-riding outfit and is breathing hard after a training session. Nodding at me and Nili, she sits down to catch her breath. At the age of 45, Rina is trying to pedal her way to a career as a road-bike rider. She makes a living as a biking instructor and from cleaning houses. When her mother was younger, Nili says, she wanted to be an ice-skater, but was prevented from doing that by her parents. Rina, for her part, supports and follows her daughter’s athletic ambitions, if not all that closely. “Even if I tell her six times what’s happening with me she won’t remember,” Nili says. “Not because she doesn’t want to − she is stuck in a bubble with the bicycling thing.”

Trophies are perched on shelves above the bed in Nili’s room, and medals dangle on the wall and from her night light. “These are for wins,” she says, pointing to one row of medals, “and these others are for participation.”

Nili Block was born in Baltimore, the third of six children, to a religiously observant dentist father and a secular mother. The family immigrated to Beit Shemesh when Nili was two. She played in a variety of sports − soccer, basketball, baseball − in local leagues.

“In grade school there were different times set aside for the boys and the girls to use the soccer field. I always wanted to be with the boys,” she recalls. “People gave me looks, but I didn’t care what they thought of me. I don’t want to offend others, but what’s good for me, is good for me.”

How did people around you take that?

“They took it. That’s what makes me what I am, and people look up to me for it. I don’t give two hoots about others: I am who I am.”

When Block was 10, her mother, then a volunteer with the Border Police, started to take lessons in Muay Thai − Thai boxing − and Nili joined her. She liked the feeling of independence and fitness she got from the sport.

When she was 11, Block’s parents divorced. Her mother went to the United States for a few months, and the children stayed with their father. Nili found herself looking after her younger siblings. Her father stayed in Beit Shemesh, remarried and had another child. Rina eventually moved with the children to the adjacent Ramat Beit Shemesh neighborhood, and at the same time, found out that there was a girls’ football league in Beit Shemesh. “She suggested to Daniella, my older sister, that she should play,” Block relates now. “But I said, ‘Hey, what about me?’”

The league she joined played flag football − in which, instead of tackling, the defensive team has to remove a flag or a flag attached to a belt from the ball carrier. There is only one flag football league for girls in Israel. During the period in which her family was falling apart, it was like an alternative family for her, Block explains, a place to escape to. A year later, she was chosen for the national team; her sister left the sport. Block spent most of her first three years on the team sitting on the bench and did not accompany the others to games abroad.

“That made me a little angry,” she says, “but it was also a challenge for me: to show the coach that I could give more in training at home and on the field, to come to every practice even though I was on the bench. It was tough, but it’s important to be there for your team. They are your family. Your personality is built through the team.”

School, too, wasn’t going well for her in this period. They spoke English at home and she found the studies in Hebrew difficult. In sixth grade, the principal warned her that if she didn’t improve her grades she would be kicked out. Block stopped boxing for a year and a half to better her academic performance. “I am still mad at my mother for allowing me to leave boxing,” she says.

In seventh and eighth grades she continued to play with a ball in the corridors of the ulpana, to the displeasure of the housefather. The turning point came at age 15. Passionately wanting to accompany the football team at an annual tournament abroad, she plunged into training.

“That dedication automatically transferred to my schoolwork, too,” she says. “I learned that an athlete wants to be best in every field. I was so competitive that if I was walking on one side of the street and someone was walking ahead of me on the other side, I just had to catch up to him.” It worked: She was chosen to go abroad with the team and her grades soared. At the same time, if an annual class outing clashed with receiving a medal in football, she skipped the outing.

What did your parents say?

“They let me do whatever I wanted.”

Block’s weekly routine back then is the best indication of her desire and ability to get to Rio in 2016, in one way or another. Every day after school she took a bus to Jerusalem. On Sunday, Monday and Wednesday it was for football practice; on Tuesday and Thursday it was Thai boxing. She would get home around 11 o’clock at night. On Fridays she got up at 4:45 A.M. to travel to the Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus for a running-and-stair-climbing workout before school. In the past year she dropped football and has brought her full concentration to bear on boxing.

“If someone tells me how hard it is, I might get it into my head that I am tired,” she observes, “so I prefer not to be reminded of that, and then I won’t think about it.”

When did you manage to do your homework?

“On the bus.”

You returned from a competition in Hungary the day before the matriculation exam in mathematics. Where did you study?

“In the airport.”

Isn’t all this at the expense of school and a social life?

“If it’s at the expense of school and girlfriends, so be it. This is the most important thing in my life.”

Sparring in a skirt

Nili Block decided to give up football last summer, after the national team finished a lowly sixth in the world championships in Sweden. “I decided I want to get to the Olympics and that football won’t get me there. I talked it over with the football coach and he said it was my call. During Hanukkah I went to Eddie [Yusupov] and told him, ‘I want to get to the Olympics. Don’t promise me victories. Promise you will support me and be there for me.’”

For various reasons, Yusupov did not go to the Thai boxing championship in Bangkok or to the Kickboxing World Cup, held in Hungary in May.Worldwide, as in this country, few girls compete in Thai boxing. In Bangkok, there were only two others in Block’s weight class. She won the toss-up, so the two others fought each other and she only had to fight the winner, a girl from Bulgaria.

“She was bigger than me physically, but I beat her with technique,” she explains. “In the World Cup, I had two fights. One was with a Hungarian girl, who took a blow to the kidney and stopped. It’s all right,” she says, seeing my shocked look. “She got up afterward and we even had our picture taken together. In the second fight my opponent was from Belarus. She got a nosebleed in the third round and I won on points.”

Two days before this interview, in a practice session of classic boxing, Block herself took a powerful punch to the side of the head. During our conversation she notes in passing that she has had “a monster headache” for the past two days. “Even now I am on Advil. Maybe I will go to the doctor today, to see if it’s a concussion,” she reflects aloud.

Do you sometimes think about what this sport can do to you?

“Sometimes I think about not wanting something to happen to me that will have a long-term effect, like Muhammad Ali. But if I keep thinking about that it will make me stop.”

What’s the bottom line?

“I don’t want to think about it. I just have to wear a helmet all the time.”

Throughout this whole period, until Block completed her senior year of high school about a month ago, Block was a full-time ulpana student. She calls herself “national-religious.” How does that jibe with training in tank tops and shorts − and with men? She shrugs.

“Everyone finds his own way in Judaism,” she says. “My older brother will say I am not behaving according to halakha [Jewish religious law] because I wear a tank top or train with boys. But I observe Shabbat and the precepts, and keep kosher. From my point of view, that is the [main] criterion.” In Hungary, she relates, she had to be weighed on Shabbat on an electric scale. She asked an Arab member of the team to place her on the scale. One member of the team asked his rabbi if boxing on Shabbat is permitted. “He replied that it does not suit the ‘Shabbat atmosphere,’ but that it is still all right.” She took 20 cans of tuna to Thailand and ate only that and bread.

Do Block’s milieu in Beit Shemesh and her ulpana share her liberal approach to Judaism? She remembers Beit Shemesh when it was more open. “It was a religious-secular city, less ultra-Orthodox. I feel the change. There are more kollels [yeshivas for married men] opening. That is not a bad thing in itself, but it leads to other things that are bad for us: for example, signs asking people to dress more modestly. My father works in the Haredi section of Ramat Beit Shemesh. I biked there this week in shorts and he commented, jokingly, about my clothing. ‘It’s my right,’ I told him.”

How did the school take it?

“I wasn’t one of those who got into trouble because of the length of their skirt. I always evade trouble. Maybe because I was a good student. I was reprimanded maybe once.”

Didn’t they care that you trained with boys?

“I’m not sure they were aware of it. When Reuters came to take my picture in training and at school, the principal asked that I wear a short-sleeved shirt, not a tank top, for the shot, and that only the upper part of my body should appear. That means she knew I was training in a tank top. Really, who trains in a skirt?”

Memories of Chabad

A few punching bags away from Block in the Jerusalem sports center, Sarah Avraham is waging a trickier battle for a teenage girl’s right to box if she wants to. Avraham was born in Mumbai, India, to a Christian mother, who was a nurse, and a Hindi father, a physician, who was interested in Judaism. The family had long observed kashrut, and effectively Sarah grew up as a Jew but without actually converting. In India she played soccer, basketball and field hockey; she was also school champion in track and field.

“In India, sports and studies are the same thing. If you don’t succeed in sports, it’s as though you haven’t succeeded at all,” she observes.

However, being Jewish in Mumbai was no picnic. Along with her older brother and younger sister, Avraham was often roundly cursed, mostly by Christians and Muslims. “There were Christians who said that the Jews go to hell because they killed Jesus,” she relates. “Only the Hindis were nice to me.” It was the hounding by schoolmates that first made her think about being able to defend herself.

The Avraham family wanted to convert and immigrate to Israel 20 years ago. To this end, they were in contact with Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivka, from Chabad House in Mumbai. The two families became good friends. The Holtzbergs were among those killed in the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai.

Avraham emphasizes that the attack was not aimed at Jews or at Israelis per se. “The terrorists were Muslims from Pakistan,” she says. “Two of them went to a hotel, two to a hospital and two to Chabad House. It was all across Mumbai.”

At the time of the attack, she was taking matriculation-like exams. “I got up in the morning to run and my mother told me not to leave the house,” she recalls. “I went back to sleep and got up an hour later and got ready for school, but my mother told me not to go. Put on the TV, she said, and I saw all the burned buildings. We didn’t know that there were terrorists in Chabad House. We called and called, but Gabi and Rivka didn’t answer, and then suddenly we saw on TV what happened there. My father was in northern India and sent people from the hospital to make sure we were all right. I am not afraid of terror attacks, I only worry about the people [who are hurt].”

About a month after the attack, a reporter for the Haredi weekly magazine Mishpacha (Family), Aharon Granevich-Granot visited Mumbai to write human-interest stories after the tragedy. In the course of his stay he encountered the Avraham family and decided to help them. He guided them through the conversion process, then brought them to Kiryat Arba, where he lives.

“I didn’t know anything about the politics in Israel,” Sarah Avraham says, “but I feel like I am the luckiest person in the world.” In India, she notes, it was risky to leave the house after 8 P.M. “But here I feel safe and happy. People here helped us very much. I will live here for my whole life. I only hope they don’t do here what they did in Gush Katif” − referring to the evacuation of the settlement bloc in the Gaza Strip.

It took Avraham two years to become acclimated to her new home, a period in which she kept to herself. “I don’t feel like a complete person if I don’t do sports,” she says. “All my life I was thin, and suddenly I felt that I was gaining weight. It didn’t feel right. There are no sports in the Kiryat Arba ulpana at all.” Two years ago, she saw someone in Kiryat Arba training in a sport she had never seen. She asked him what he was doing and he gave her Yusupov’s number. That same day she attended her first boxing session.

What was it like training with boys?

“Cool. In India I went to school with boys and girls. Only there, out of a class of 50 kids, 45 were boys.”

“Cool” was not the word Avraham’s parents used for their daughter’s new pastime. “At first they almost threw me out,” she relates. “They didn’t like that I was training with boys. My father said people in Kiryat Arba told him that if I didn’t stop it, I would not be able to live there. That really scared me. I said I would not stop, but you can imagine how frightened I was that I would be sent back to India. I am still angry at him. He told me, ‘Sarah, you will never succeed, you are wasting your life.’

“Only after I won the Israeli championship he started to say, ‘All right, you’re good at it.’ After I won in Thailand they were convinced, but then I lost in Hungary and they started persuading me to stop again. Friends of the family who heard I was training told me, ‘You mustn’t − it is wrong.’ My mother was completely against it. In short, everyone around me was against it. Everyone except Eddie. Only he said, ‘You’re good, you’re strong.’ That’s the most important thing for me. As an athlete, I need my coach and that’s it. I need him next to me. In Thailand I called him before the fight and after the fight. He gave me confidence. When he says I am good, nothing else matters.”

How do you feel about your parents’ attitude?

“What can I do? It’s all right. I’m used to it by now. I only have to pay them back the money I took to fly to the competitions. I will pay for the next competition myself.”

Supportive rabbi

It was actually in school that Avraham found a sympathetic approach to her athletic activities. “When I won the world championship, everyone heard about it, including the teachers,” she says. “I was afraid, but the school rabbi told me, ‘Well done, we are proud of you.’ People in Kiryat Arba aren’t cut off, they are practical people. They know I am serious and am not just going there and doing nonsense. It’s important for them for me to represent Israel. When I am interviewed about being from Kiryat Arba, they get publicity, and they like that.”

Avraham’s opponent in the Bangkok competition was from England. The match “was really good,” she recalls. “I was aggressive, I kept up the pressure on her. The whole time I attacked, attacked, attacked.” But in Hungary she discovered that she had been placed in the adult class instead of the youth category.

In the absence of a coach, she didn’t know how to get the classification changed and ended up fighting a woman of 28: “I took the loss very hard. When I got back I told Eddie I was fed up and wanted a two-week break without talking to anyone. He said that would be wrong, that this is exactly when I have to see people. Thanks to him, I came back.”

“Before fights, Sarah makes friends with her opponent,” Eddie says. “She goes over to her, hugs her. I tell her she can hug afterward, not during the competition. She can say hello as one athlete to another. But that’s the way she is. That’s what I want to get out of her, for her not to be so naive, for her to be nasty in her approach and in the fight itself.”

Block, on the other hand, “doesn’t think about anything,” Yusupov adds. “She goes into the ring and it doesn’t matter what happened to her that day. In Hungary, when I flew to the competition with them, that had a great influence on Sarah but no influence at all on Nili. When she boxes, she boxes.”

“What can I do?” Avraham says with a smile. “I’m nice, I love everyone. But what happens outside the ring doesn’t affect what happens in it. I was like this already in India.”

Like most Israeli athletes who are not soccer players or judoka Arik Ze’evi, the two girls, champions though they may be, receive no funding. To pay for her trips to Jerusalem (NIS 400 a month), the training (NIS 230 a month) and trips abroad for competitions, Block cleans houses, delivers newspapers and, if there is no other choice, asks her parents for money.

For her part, Avraham doesn’t like to ask for money (“I still remember how we had nothing when we got here”), so she too cleans houses and also works as a dog walker and waitress. Block has tried to find sponsors, but so far unsuccessfully.

“People in Israel told me I have to go to the big companies abroad,” she says, “but why would they want to sponsor an Israeli girl? I am always being told that this is the way it is, that sports here is not at a high level, that I will have to go abroad. If that is the way it has to be in order to reach the level I want, that is the way it will be.”

Block and Avraham will have to overcome a few other hurdles before getting to the Olympics. Avraham has received an exemption from army service due to an underactive thyroid, and is about to begin her alternative, national service. But what she wants most is to complete her matriculation exams. “It was very hard for me because of the Hebrew,” she explains, “but the problem is that you can’t live from sports in Israel. I have to get a matriculation certificate.”

Block, meanwhile, is trying to get the army to classify her as an outstanding athlete, a status which will allow her to serve and continue training.

Thai boxing has not been formally recognized as an Olympic sport, though efforts are underway to change that ahead of the 2016 Games. If not, Block says she will switch to classic boxing, which does not have the kicks, elbows and knockdowns characteristic of the Thai sport. Avraham prefers to stay with it.

After the interview, Block asks for a ride to a mall at the outskirts of Beit Shemesh, to the offices of Keren Shemesh, a foundation for the encouragement of young entrepreneurs, which has promised her NIS 1,500 in aid. On the way, she gets a call from a travel agency, which has been holding a plane ticket to Ukraine for her, for the European championships in August. The ticket costs $450, but if she doesn’t pay today the price will rise to $600. “I have a meeting with someone who is supposed to help me with financing,” Avraham tells the agency. “It’s set for the coming hour, so can I get back to you afterward?”

If you don’t have money to pay for the trip, will you forgo the event?

“I believe it will happen, even if it’s borderline. I have NIS 2,000 in my bank account. So it will go for this.”

Does all your money go for competitions?

“Yes.”

What about clothes, going out, an iPad?

“I asked my uncle in the United States to buy me a computer − a gift to mark the end of high school. He said maybe.”

I drop Block off and she disappears into an office building − on the way to Ukraine.

Kobi Kalmanovitz
Kobi Kalmanovitz