Personal StoriesTeshuva Personal Stories

A Bodybuilder and Male Supermodel Came Back to Judaism?

Dror Okavi was born near Netanya in a Moshav called Bet Halevi. His family was far from Torah observance and it didn’t interest him personally. When Dror was young he was physically strong, he dreamed of success in the bodybuilding world and Arnold Schwarzenegger was his hero. From age 14 Dror committed himself to this goal and got his high school degree. 

Since he was already deep into bodybuilding and fitness he hoped he could continue with it when joining the Army for his mandatory service. “The Platoon commander of the Golani Brigade made a deal with me when he heard I wanted to be a fitness coach: “I’ll send you to learn the fitness coach certification course in the Wingate Academy on the condition you come back to the army to be our training coach in the Golani Brigade.” It was a good deal and Dror took him up on the offer coming back to the army to be a trainer in Golani upon becoming a certified fitness coach.

After Dror completed his army service he went on to fulfill another dream; to become “Mr. Israel”, Israel’s greatest bodybuilder. In the year 2000 he was Mr. Israel and in 2001 he won the Israel Super Cup earning the title “Champion of Champions” meaning he won every competition in every weight category. The path from there to professional modeling was short and well paved.

Dror got many offers for modeling contracts and they were all lucrative. Advertisements, promotions guest appearances and newspaper articles were part of his new life. But one day Dror felt Israel shrinking and feeling ‘too small for him”. “I did small inconsequential things in Israel and I was frustrated with that. I went to the US embassy to get a visa to America and I was refused,” Dror relates. He then decided to leave Israel as fast as he could and went to Australia for a half year. Then he went to Thailand and Germany. Getting the wanderlust temporarily out of his system he returned to Israel and again tried getting a visa.  The answer was yes. “When I got the visa I said goodbye Israel.”
this week's torah portion
Goodbye Israel

“At age 25 I came to the states as a young Israeli and I quickly fit in; I became a private fitness trainer”, says Dror. Photographers took note of him and asked to start shooting him in photo sessions. In a very short time Dror was on the cover of a well-known fitness magazine.  Dror was now signed up with 3 leading modeling agencies and was swept into the whirlpool of the entertainment world. His life was divided up between training fitness clients, clothing modeling shoots, auditions and TV commercials, photo shoots for calendars, guest appearances on entertainment shows and parties with celebrities.

Parallel to his wild life of abandon, Dror desperately looked for a spiritual compass to guide him. “I signed up for awareness courses that teach you how to feel good. I tried everything, even Christianity when I once visited a church to see what goes on there. I had an American Christian girlfriend that was converting to Judaism. She tried dragging me to her classes in Judaism but those classes didn’t talk to me, they were classes for a Conservative conversion. How does a Conservative Jew keep Shabbat? They drive to synagogue on Shabbat. The Rabbi liked me a lot and gave me an aliya calling me up to the Torah.  That did something to me.”

“A religious client came for training and told me about a Chabad Rabbi. When training with me he convinced me to go to Torah classes with him. I told him that those classes don’t do it for me so he invited me for a Shabbat meal.  I drove up before Shabbat to the Synagogue parked and came in. I felt amazingat synagogue and at the Shabbat meal by my client. The atmosphere was very pleasant.” Dror found himself steadily attending synagogue though he wasn’t yet committed to Shabbat observance. He would drive to Synagogue on Friday and drive back home after services or a meal by his friend.

Once when visiting the Chabad Rabbi Dror saw a disc from Rabbi Zamir Cohen. “I started listening to it when I drove. It was strange to admit it but the rabbi really knew what he was talking about. I started listening to Rabbi Zamir Cohen’s lectures and looked everywhere for his discs. On one of the discs I found the link to and started checking out the Rabbis on the network. I downloaded lectures on my IPhone and I would listen to them when training. Rabbi Zamir Cohen’s lectures, the proofs he would give and his astounding words of character development made a deep impression on me. All of it is delivered in a pleasant manner and when you hear the truth the heart accepts it more readily. I’m not sure why this is, it’s hard to explain.”
Jewish Rabbis
As Dror was building himself up spiritually, listening to discs and lectures, praying at the synagogue and enjoying Shabbat he scored on what seemed to be a life changing audition. “I auditioned and was accepted. This was a serious role on prime time television opposite a really famous actress. I couldn’t believe how smooth it went…” The actors were all signed up for their roles and they scheduled their first episode shoot for Shabbat. His Chabad Rabbi told him that there is no blessing in work on Shabbat but giving up this role which would open up even more doors in his career was too much for Dror to consider.

The show was life changing for him, but not quite the way he thought.  “I went to the studio on Shabbat really happy and excited. I sat down and they did my makeup and suddenly they told me that the session was cancelled. The main actress wasn’t in the mood for the shoot and she didn’t show. The rabbi was right about no blessing in Shabbat work. “

“I kept asking G-d for more signs of what to do. I went out one Friday and crossed a yellow light turning red. A policeman fined me on the spot for $480.00. This was the first time such a thing ever happened to me. It was a steep fine that I had no plans of paying since I was also confident that I crossed the intersection when the light was yellow. My friends told me to let it go and just pay it because I’d lose in traffic court but I was stubborn. “

While waiting for the court case Dror increased his level of Shabbat observance. Instead of driving far away to synagogue on Friday nights he found a local synagogue he could walk to. He stopped working on Shabbat and tried keeping the mitzvoth of Shabbat and maintaining its holiness. When his court appointment came up Dror arrived with the rest of the traffic violators waiting for his turn. Dror spoke to G-d while waiting and asked Him for a sign that He is indeed looking on and things just don’t happen by themselves. Dror was called to the stand. The clerk told him that the traffic policeman that issued the ticket didn’t show up so the case is dismissed and the fine was cancelled. Dror said: “Only my traffic policeman didn’t show? For me that was a miracle! I understood that G-d is watching over me and this strengthened my resolve to keep the Shabbat.”

Dror started to refuse jobs he felt were no longer appropriate for him. He stopped spending time in the company of women and even totally stopped any physical contact with women. He also stopped photo shoots as the set cost too much spiritually making him sacrifice his values too much. He gave up contracts that were major sources of income and remained with his fitness training.
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What am I doing here?

A whole year passed and Dror was consistent in his Shabbat observance and kept fitness training for his livelihood.  “I started learning the ‘Book of Tanya’ with a study partner at the Chabad Synagogue. (Tanya discusses the parts of the soul the ‘heavenly soul’ and the ‘animalistic soul’). One day I thought to myself that my animalistic soul doesn’t dictate my life any more. So what exactly am I doing here in America?  I sought the council of Rabbi Pinto who guided me on what to do.” Rabbi Pinto told him to travel, so he packed his luggage with some memories and a lot of stardust and got on a plane to Israel.

Dror says: “Since I came to Israel I’m rising in spirituality.” Dror’s personal work includes his intense physical training, careful nutrition and spiritual effort too. He prays at synagogue 3 times a day and wears a kippah and tzitzith. “It takes ma a long time to pray and I also say Psalms and ask my personal requests from G-d.” When I first started listening to Rabbi Zamir Cohen’s lectures I started to dream about meeting him in Israel and I actually waited for such a meeting to happen.” Dror met Rabbi Cohen and shared his past year’s events with him. “The Rabbi spent a long time with me and invited me to his Yeshiva in Beitar Illit for Shabbat. I went and I was happy the rabbi was able to be an ear for me. To my knowledge there are few people of his stature, so wise and knowledgeable in science that are as humble as he is.

I belong to G-d

“I started listening to lectures of other rabbis like Rabbi Yitzchak Fanger, Rabbi Yosef Ben- Porat and Rabbi Aaron Levi and really connected to what they said. I think Hidabroot’s activities are a blessing from heaven. The fact that the network is growing and more rabbis are broadcasting all the time proves the great demand for it from a nation thirsty for spirituality. This simply saves people’s spiritual lives and helps against the dangers of intermarriage which I almost did myself.”

Today Dror continues with his private practice of fitness training. But he is also training himself in the ways of faith and true values. “I learn Chassidut (Hassidic studies) with a Chabad Rabbi and I learn Talmud with a Lithuanian Rabbi and Mussar (Character development) with Rabbi Moshe Ben Moshe, but I don’t belong to any specific stream of Judaism. I belong to G-d and they are all His messengers.”

Indeed G-d has no shortage of messengers and the different paths to come back to Judaism are many. Dror whose pictures used to grace the covers of sport and fitness magazines as the symbol of physical perfection now closes a circle as he now graces pictures as someone who is a symbol for spiritual searching and work on his soul. Dror is about to celebrate one year back in Israel and in addition to his spiritual progress he is also learning naturopathy at the Wingate Institute where he first got certified as a fitness instructor. Dror steals away time to learn the sources of the Judaism he didn’t know about before and to reconnect his family chain to the generations before him. His parents didn’t dream their son the muscular model would ever become a religious Jew. But dreams do come true.

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