Jon Feinman combines two classic Jewish interests in his nonprofit work: helping young people, and… weightlifting? Strange as it seems, Jon’s program, InnerCity Weightlifting, is changing lives and winning awards. I asked Jon how he got the idea and how it all works.
What inspired you to start this program?
Six years ago I enrolled in a year of Americorps. My role was to get young people involved in after-school sport based activity. Because of the number of incredible programs like Metrolacrosse, Tenacity, SCORES, and Squashbusters, it was almost too easy.
I gravitated towards young people in a gang called MS-13. At the time, these were the young people carrying machetes and guns, and they were driving a disproportionate percentage of violence. As I got to know them, I realized two things: 1) they had already been kicked out of several programs and/or weren’t interested in any current programs, 2) although they were making bad decisions, their decisions were based on the logic of their circumstances. I figured if we could create a positive, logical alternative to the streets they would take to it. Weightlifting was a common interest.
Inside the gym something unexpected happened – the conversation became less about weight training and more about life in general. All of a sudden I could refer them into programs and they would at the very least give it a try. A positive relationship allowed us to compliment the positive agendas others were pushing.
When we officially launched in 2010, one of the young people I worked with during that year of Americorps became our first enrolled member. In the past 3 years he has been stabbed 7 times, shot, and jumped several times. Yet, despite this almost overwhelming pull back into a life of violence, he is now on the longest stretch of his life out of jail and off probation. He is working full time, studying to get his GED, and teaching people how to lift at our gym in his free time.
Take us through a typical session: what do you work on with the students?
We focus on the relationship and having fun first. Our students are used to people telling them what to do and what not to do. We focus on the positives and prove ourselves to our students. We earn their trust, because we truly care.
Once we have established trust, the workout varies based on the needs of our students. In general they warm up, perform one or two Olympic lifts, then move onto strength training and finally conditioning. More than 70% of our target students have been shot or stabbed though, so the training is adapted to each person’s physical and emotional needs.
One of the best training sessions I’ve seen with our students took place a few months ago. Sadly, one of our recruits, and close friend of several of our target students, was murdered. The day of his funeral we picked these young people up and brought them to the gym. They came in understandably upset. Within a few minutes a group of our older students saw that these guys were upset and went over to them. Knowing firsthand what the loss of a friend and family member feels like, they put their arms around them. They didn’t talk about what happened, but made sure they were ok, relatively.
Just a few minutes later they were all talking, joking, laughing. The sound of weights being lifted carried throughout the room. If only for a couple of hours, the stress and toll of the streets was no longer an issue.
Weightlifting seems to be a part of prison culture. Do you ever get students who come in with the wrong idea about the sport?
No. And we make it incredibly clear in our intake that this program is about building a better future. It’s about creating hope and opportunity. Students respect that, and in the gym they protect what we stand for. In two and a half years of working with some of the most high-profile young people in the city we haven’t had so much as a verbal argument in the gym.
So, how much can you bench?
Ha. Sadly, not nearly as much as I used to. Previously, 245lbs. I’m a little guy, despite the image people may think of when they hear about this organization. And although we primarily focus on Olympic lifts, Olympic lift variations, squats, and bodyweight exercises, most of our students are now getting stronger than me. It’s ok though. I’m going to get a ping pong table donated. I think I’ll be the best at that. I hope.
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Four Questions is a weekly interview column featuring interesting people connected with the greater Boston Jewish community. Find past columns here. Have an idea of someone we should interview? Email Molly!