For world champion welterweight boxer, Dmitriy Salita, finding his spirituality and a sense of himself became a product of his dedication to his boxing gloves.
â€œIt may sound odd, but I found God at the Starrett City Boxing Club,â€ Salita said to the community members who attended the Shabbat 200, hosted by the Chabad Jewish Student Organization Friday night in the Lory Student Center.
For Rabbi Yerachmiel Gorelik, bringing Salita to CSU was a mixture of good fortune and good timing.
â€œTwo hundred people walked away differently because of it,â€ Gorelik said. â€œA challenge for students is to embrace Jewish pride, and we try to bring people who can speak to that. I think Dimitriyâ€™s story really spoke to that.â€
Born in Ukraine, Salita said he never had much connection to his Jewish heritage other than the fact he knew it limited him in Ukrainian society â€” that is until he immigrated to America.
At nine years old, his parents moved him and his brother from Odessa to Brooklyn in New York, where Salita said he finally felt at home enough to discover who he was.
â€œAmerica is the best country in the world because it allows you to be whoever you want to be,â€ Salita said. â€œAmerica gave me incredible opportunities as a religious person and as a boxer. I got to learn who I was, express it and not be punished for it.â€
Four years later, after seeing a talent in Salita, his brother introduced him to boxing, where his hard work quickly landed him the respect of many boxers at the club.
â€œIn the beginning my skills and my determination didnâ€™t go hand in hand,â€ Salita said. â€œAll good things come with hardship and hard work.â€
During his time training Salita said that he believed in God, but had many questions concerning Judaism and how he fit within the religion.
It was at this time that Salita started to pay more attention to observant Judaism and for him, his spirituality started to come by way of baby steps. By taking small commandments upon him he said he received the will and strength to take on larger ones, eventually becoming more observant of Orthodox Judaism.
By 17, Salita had entered the Golden Gloves boxing tournament held in New York City. And while he made it to the finals, he ended up losing, which led him to consider options other than a boxing career. His success up until the finals got him noticed in the boxing community, however, and he was invited to enter a national competition in Mississippi.
After the invitation, Salita said he went to be blessed by his Rabbi who promised him success if he committed himself to Orthodox Judaism.
For Salita this was a shock, because becoming orthodox for him meant declining to box during the Sabbath, which would be a problem â€“â€“ especially during the fights in Mississippi.
â€œI remember thinking, â€˜whoa Rabbi, take it easy, I am not on that level yet â€” you are asking the impossible,â€™â€ Salita said. â€œHe told me to close my eyes and do it.â€
He decided not to fight in one of his scheduled fights in Mississippi. However after being featured in a Mississippi newspaper, the organizers rescheduled the fight and, despite spectatorâ€™s skepticism of him as a Jewish boxer, he ended up winning.
â€œIt was the breaking point for me, my own roadblock,â€ Salita said.
According to Salita, his win was no coincidence. Seeing his talent as a gift from God, Salita believes his faith led to his accomplishments. After the fights in Mississippi, Salita went pro and in recent years has become a world champion in welterweight division boxing.
â€œMy success and my blessings come from the fact that I am Shabbat observant,â€ Salita said. â€œAt the end of the day my success in life comes from my Jewishness.â€
And for the attendees of the Shabbat 200, his message and encouragement of self-expression and discovery was not only intended for the Jewish community but for the non-Jewish attendees as well.
According to Gorelik, Salitaâ€™s speech communicated the message the Chabad Jewish Student Organization was trying to convey to Jewish students. For the Rabbi, this translates into something that can be understood by people from all walks of life.
â€œIf you truly believe in who you are or what you want to be you can accomplish anything. This message was a tremendous strength and accomplishment,â€ Gorelik said.
While Salita believes his boxing goes hand in hand with his faith, at the end of the day, his faith matters more to him than anything else.
â€œLearn about yourself, thereâ€™s a lot of anti-Semitism and stereotypes in pop culture. Encourage yourself and encourage others, our purpose is to make the world a better place,â€ Salita said at the Shabbat 200. â€œI feel it is my responsibility to preach Jewish belief and Jewish pride.â€
Collegian Writer Sarah Fenton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.