Throwing Fists for Faith: Students Learn Leadership Through Boxing

Trainer Courtney Feldheim (right) helps lead the series of boxing classes. Photo by David Stuck.

“I don’t hear you breathing!” Courtney Feldheim, boxing trainer with Towson Back to Basics, yelled at her students.

Throwing a punch exposes the abs, she explained. Exhaling loudly with a “ch” noise tightens the abs to protect them. Her students — a group of almost ten kids, ranging from eighth to 10th grade — adjust their punches to add “ch” sounds.

On Jan. 14, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation hosted the first of three boxing classes for teenagers. It held another Jan. 21 and plans to hold its last Jan. 28. The classes are an effort to encourage young Jewish leadership.

Leadership coach Lindsey Davis, founder of Power Through That, and boxing coach Courtney Feldheim direct the series. The two are old friends with animated chemistry. During the boxing class, they bounced off of each other’s ideas. Feldheim’s boxing techniques focus on courage, critical thinking, and self-presentation, while Davis motivates the kids like a coach before the Super Bowl, quickly drawing points on a whiteboard and explaining life lessons. 4Front, an initiative that encourages teens to explore their Jewish identities, closed the class with a Torah connection.

“The effort is a joint collaboration,” said Sam Kahan Strakes, 4Front managing director of education and programming.

“We partner with synagogues and organizations to team up on unique programming that neither of us could do alone,” said Rabbi Dena Shaffer, executive director of 4Front.

The kids in this boxing series are all new to 4Front, and most signed up through the congregation. Strakes works with Alicia Gallant, NextGen assistant director of education, to bring religion to the classes. NextGen is a teen leadership group at BHC that “provides a full menu of activities,” Gallant said. For this first boxing class, they talked about Abraham from the Torah and his leadership style.

Strakes and Gallant chose the themes for the series. The first class’s theme was leadership typologies, the second was decision making, and the third will be understanding your audience.

The series grew from a chance encounter in the summer of 2016. Davis ran into Feldheim in Little Italy. The two hadn’t seen each other since they graduated high school in 1999. They started talking about Davis’ search for ways to teach body language and reading an audience. Feldheim responded that she thinks about all those things when she steps into the ring. The two realized that leadership training and boxing could pair together.

“Decision making [Jan. 28’s theme] correlates to dodging in boxing,” Davis said.

“Lindsey’s talking leadership language, and I translate it into boxing language,” Feldheim said.

Besides the similarities, Shaffer pointed out, boxing is a great way to disguise learning as fun.

“Or as I always like to say, hiding the peas in the mashed potatoes,” she said in an email before the class.

The First Fight Club

On Jan. 14, eight kids walked into their first lesson with the usual swagger of an eighth grader: huddling by the door, shyly waving hello, and mumbling to each other.

However, not even an hour in, the group was laughing, teasing each other, and captivated by their trainers’ chemistry. Their confidence blossomed as Davis got the kids excited about what they want to learn.

“I want to learn fight moves,” said Noah Cohen, who is interested in the upper-cut move.

Teens learn boxing and leadership at a class at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. Photo by David Stuck.

“It’s so addictive,” Feldheim said of boxing. She told the kids about the challenges she faces as a woman in boxing. For example, people sometimes assume her husband is the fighter. She also cannot weigh in if another woman is not there to weigh her in, and usually her
competitors don’t come to the ring.

“But it’s always worth it,” Feldheim said. “That feeling of energy is something that won’t equal — I literally feel like I can do anything.”

Feldheim lined the kids up and showed them stances, jabs, double jabs, and played a practice game with them.

After the kids took a break for water and snacks, Davis jumped back in by discussing “discovery” and “default” modes of the brain. Feldheim popped in to say, “This is like, if I don’t have previous boxing training, my default move would be just to block.”

Davis discussed the types of leadership styles, and Feldheim provided another example: “I have to adjust to fights just like these learning styles.”

The final class of the boxing series will take place Jan. 28 at 6 p.m. at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation on Park Heights Avenue. Students can still join if they haven’t signed up yet.

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