Leyla packs a punch for Judaism

FROM the life of a jetsetting international model to fighting as an amateur female boxer to producing film documentaries, Leyla Leidecker has experienced the world in ways that others can only imagine.

But it was only after discovering Judaism that life for Leyla - wife of professional boxer and rabbi-in-training Yuri Foreman, whose story was told here last week - became "so much more meaningful".

She added: "Judaism has helped me to find certain things.

"Before I found Judaism, religion had never felt like it fit for me or answered any of my questions."

"But the Jewish view of the soul, of life, of the way people should behave - it all feels right to me.

"And the good thing about Judaism is that, if you are interested in the subject, you can always dig deeper and ask more questions."

Leyla's journey to conversion has been a varied one, beginning in communist Hungary.

"Growing up in a communist country, I had no affiliation to any religion," she said.

"Put it this way, I was a teenager by the time I found out that Xmas was supposed to be a religious holiday."

After completing her school years, Leyla all but fell into the world of modelling after assisting friends with their photography projects.

She said: "They used to take pictures of me and send them off to various places and things picked up from there.

"I was mainly doing fashion and editorial modelling and really enjoyed the travelling for the first few years.

"I was making a lot of money and working in many interesting places, such as Italy, Germany, Australia and France."

She continued: "But after a few years, I began to become very depressed about the lifestyle.

"I didn't like always being on the road - it felt like nothing truly belonged to me."

It was while working in New York and renting an apartment next to Gleason's Boxing Gym that Leyla's life changed.

"I had always wanted to know how tough I am and I always like a challenge, so I took up boxing," she said.

"Living next to the gym, it was the obvious place for me to go and right away, as soon as I started, I knew that I wanted to compete.

"Boxing is a sport where you represent yourself and you have to take full responsibility for what happens in the ring.

"As I boxed more, my body began to change and I stopped modelling."

In her first competitive amateur fight, Leyla won by a second round knockout.

She said: "I was nervous, but I was also so happy to be doing what I had been training for.

"I had a few friends come and watch me, but not too many because you never know what's going to happen in the ring.

"You can get so much out of boxing - you can reach a form of meditation where you are so in the present that you cut yourself off from all other existing things.

"Sometimes after I have been sparring, I have to take a moment and remember who I even am because I get so caught up in it."

Leyla twice competed in the New York Golden Gloves amateur boxing tournament - both times reaching the semi-finals in the 125kg weight category, the most competitive female weight division.

"Female boxers are like a family and really support each other," she said.

"I have had people question why do I do it and what I have to prove, but I ask, 'Why do any sport'?

"The answer is to challenge and push yourself, and these are the reasons why I box."

In 2003, she became the New York Metro amateur champion.

However, after three years of competing, and with a record of four wins and two losses - including beating the twice national champion Theresa O' Toole - Leyla hung up her gloves.

She said: "I wasn't making much money and didn't see a future in the sport for women.

"When I do something, I like to do it well, but women's boxing is facing a lot of difficult challenges.

"So I decided to make a documentary about my experiences instead, which I called Golden Gloves."

She added: "One of the themes of the film was that, when a fighter wins the local Golden Gloves, they can compete in the national competition.

"But while they pay all the male boxers' expenses, they don't pay women's.

"Therefore, the female fighters don't go to the big tournaments because they can't afford it.

"I just wanted to let people know what is going on and to bring it into the public eye."

Leyla's boxing experience was called upon to work as a sparring partner for actress Hillary Swank while she was in training for her Oscar-winning role in Million Dollar Baby.

"I thought it was such a stupid story and didn't believe that it could be successful," she admitted. "I have never heard of anyone ever breaking their neck in the ring in the way she does in the film.

"I didn't think it would help make women's boxing more popular, but it definitely got it more attention and people began taking it more seriously."

It was through her passion for boxing that Leyla met Yuri, who is due to fight Daniel Santos for the WBA junior middleweight title in November.

She said: "I am always very nervous when Yuri is fighting.

"I know there is nothing I can do, so I just pray to God.

"But I go to all of his fights if I can."

It was only when the couple got together that they both began delving into Judaism.

"I had looked at other religions, but apart from simply saying 'God loves you' they didn't answer many questions," she said.

"At the time, Yuri was non-religious and hadn't always had positive experiences with Orthodox people. But in New York there's a different attitude to Judaism and we began to look into it more seriously together."

Leyla now has her hands tied up in a couple of new documentaries. The first will be another look at women in boxing while the second will be about Jewish women, although she is keeping tight-lipped about the details.

"The idea for the documentary on Jewish women is such a great proposal that I don't want to say what it is, just in case someone tries to steal it," she said.

For more on Leyla's documentary visit

© 2009 Jewish Telegraph