FAIR LAWN, New Jersey — Don’t mess with yeshiva day school student Naomi Kutin. Although she’s only just celebrated her bat mitzvah, Kutin can bench press 99 pounds and deadlift 249 pounds. She holds the world record (for all women in her weight class) in the squat for 231 pounds and is arguably the world’ strongest girl.
Dubbed “Supergirl” by her legions of fans, Kutin has earned notoriety for her Herculean ventures, making headlines from coast to coast. At weightlifting meets, she stuns audiences who can’t believe that a pint-sized girl with a toothy grin can beat out lifters who are decades older.
She’s made numerous television appearances, including Ricki Lake, Fox 5 News, and Steve Harvey and has drawn the attention of a filmmaker who is making a documentary about her.
But the Fair Lawn, NJ seventh grader with the sandy blond hair is nonchalant about all of the attention.
“I just like feeling strong,” said Kutin, adding sometimes she’s surprised by how easy it can be to lift the heavy weights.
Her favorite aspect of any competition is when spectators give her the once over and exclaim loud enough so she can hear, “Oh, she’s just a kid,” quips Kutin, trying to imitate a jaded adult.
But when they see her hoisting the weights high in the air, they gasp. Then comes the thunderous applause and high fives.
Kutin practices in her basement several times a week, where her barbells and weightlifting equipment compete for space with the family’s washing machine and dryer.
Despite her celebrityhood, and the hordes of medals and trophies pouring from her bedroom bookshelves, she’s still too young to join a real gym. And that’s just as well. Kutin says she enjoys the company of her younger brother, Ari, who recently started lifting weights and winning tournaments too.
Kutin attends a modern Orthodox day school, where her teachers and peers tell her they are proud of her powerlifting prowess. Articles about her world records hang in the school’s trophy case.
She dresses for class in the required modest skirt and blouse, while at weight lifting meets, she wears a spandex onesie, a disparity that doesn’t seem to bother anyone in the least.
“My friends in school think it’s cool that I do this,” she said. “They ask me, ‘When’s your next competition?’”
But her family’s Orthodox practice does pose obstacles to Kutin’s powerlifting career: She will not compete or travel on Shabbbat, which interferes quite a bit, since most competitions are on Saturdays, admits her mother, Neshama Kutin, who converted to Judaism before she met her husband Ed, a ba’al teshuva.
So they seek out contests on Sundays.
“She understands that that’s just what we have to do because Shabbos is important to us,” said Neshama. Kutin also avoids practicing on Shabbat.
Competitive weightlifter and coach Jim Storch of New York has watched Kutin in action and said he was impressed by Kutin’s demeanor and ability as an athlete, as well as her personality.
‘She was always an athlete who jumped higher and did more pushups than everyone else’
“Fortunately it is less unusual today for a child to be a weight lifter than it used to be,” he said. “But what’s special about Naomi,” he added, “is just how much work ethic she has had right from the start.”
Weightlifting is an unusual sport among Jews, and it has certainly never been a popular pastime for Jewish women, observed Jewish History Professor Jeffrey Gurock of Yeshiva University.
“Even if this sport dispels any suggestion that modern Jews are puny; [that was always] an anti-Jewish canard,” he said.
Kutin is certainly among the few Orthodox Jewish females to lift weights competitively, but there have been other Jews in the weightlifting arena.
The most famous was David Berger, a weight lifter and Maccabiah champion who tragically was one of the victims at Munich in 1972. But there were others. Scot Mendelson, who grew up in Brooklyn and lives in Glen Valley, Calif. is considered the world’s top bench presser with several world records.
Of course, “there was also that fellow named Shimshon,” Gurock quipped, referring to the Judge Samson, armed with supernatural strength, defeated the Philistines.
You might say that the strength runs in Kutin’s blood. Her father, Ed Kutin, is an accomplished powerlifter himself who holds several national records. Ed has been weight training for over 30 years – he started while he was a student at MIT — and he set several national records in the ADAU, 100 Percent Raw, and WNPF power-lifting federations.
Ed introduced his daughter to the sport after seeing her strong moves on the karate mat.
“She was always an athlete who jumped higher and did more pushups than everyone else,” he said. When he lifted weights, Kutin watched him with great interest. After discussion the Kutins agreed to allow her to try it.
But first Ed carefully researched the risks of weightlifting for children.
‘It builds individual confidence because there’s nobody else out there but you’
“The old school medical opinion was not to do it because of growth plates. But recent research shows it’s not any more dangerous than other sports, like basketball or soccer. It’s very important that a lifter is well supervised by someone who knows what they are doing with weights,” he said.
They started Naomi off in April 2010 with very light weights and no expectations. At the time, Kutin was eight years old.
“Immediately, we saw she had great aptitude for it,” said Ed. Four months later, she competed in a tournament and broke a national record.
Ed and Neshama say they constantly reassure their daughter she can quit at any time. But Kutin insists she wants to keep on going.
“I think I will always lift,” she said.
For Kutin, the sport has had benefits both on and off the platform, observed Neshama.
“It builds individual confidence because there’s nobody else out there but you,” she said. Naomi used to be a painfully shy girl but at her recent bat mitzvah celebration, she calmly recited her six page speech and made eye contact with the large audience of friends and family, said a beaming Neshama. “Her success in power lifting showed her she could be successful as an individual.”
Kutin added that there’s one more important lesson she’s picked up from this sport.
“I learned from this that you should always believe in yourself.”