Twenty minutes before his first televised boxing match, Dmitriy Salita had an urgent matter to attend to. Much to the consternation of his trainer, Salita refused to leave his Las Vegas hotel room until he had performed Havdala, the ritual ceremony marking the end of Shabbat.
Salita is the first ranked boxer in the world who keeps kosher, attends synagogue, refuses to fight on the Sabbath, and puts on tefillin daily. “If anyone wants a whupping from me,” Salita is fond of saying, “they’ve gotta wait until after sundown.”
On May 4, Salita spoke to an audience of over 100 people at the Chabad of Western Monmouth County in Manalapan about his journey from Ukraine to the United States, the blossoming of his boxing career, and his identity as an American and a Jew.
Salita told the crowd that his cultural melange never failed to amaze his trainer, the late Jimmy O’Pharrow of the famed Starrett City Boxing Club in Brooklyn. “My gym is like a league of nations. I seen every kind of kid come through the doors, but I ain’t never seen one that looks like Dmitiry,” O’Pharrow once told reporters, according to Salita’s website. “The kid looks Russian, prays Jewish, and fights black.”
Salita moved with his family from Odessa, Ukraine, to New York City in 1991, when he was nine years old. He began boxing four years later. Known in the ring as the “Star of David” and now a welterweight champion, Salita boasts a 31-1-1 professional record, a Golden Gloves championship, and a Sugar Ray Robinson Award.
He began to explore his Jewish roots during his mother’s battle with breast cancer in 1996 (she died in 1999).
“One day I came to visit her at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where she was rooming with an Orthodox woman,” he said. “I began to ask her roommate a lot of questions about God. Soon, a Chabad rabbi started to call me, and he kept calling me — many, many times,” Salita recalled with a laugh. “I came to the Chabad House and found a harmony that really spoke to me and empowered me spiritually.”
Salita first decided he would not fight on Shabbat at the 2000 U.S. championships in Gulfport, Miss.
When Salita announced he wouldn’t fight on Shabbat, the boxing association told him he would be disqualified. A reporter intervened, and officials agreed to delay his fight until after sundown.
“Thank God I won,” Salita said. “It was my personal sign from above that I made the right choice.
“Judaism is not a contradiction to whatever you want to do in life. The life of an observant Jew is very disciplined, which makes you more productive in every facet of your life. I will never compromise my beliefs.”
“When we heard that Dmitriy put his boxing career in jeopardy by refusing to fight on Shabbat, we knew that his message would resonate with others,” said Rabbi Levi Wolosow, Chabad of Western Monmouth County’s outreach coordinator. “Here is a proud Jew whose commitment to Judaism means more to him than wealth and fame.”
Salita’s appearance in Manalapan was sponsored by Jeff Strumeier of Marlboro, whose apparel company, Marc Ecko Enterprises, has sponsored some of Salita’s fights.
Salita’s life story struck home for audience member Jaime Goldstein of Freehold. “I was the only Jewish kid in my small town in Argentina,” he said. “I learned how to box because the other kids used to wait outside the library to beat me up.”
Robin Hilsenrath of East Windsor brought her teenage daughters to the lecture for a dose of inspiration. “I want to remind them that you can still be religious and accomplish whatever your goals are.”