(JTA) — On March 23, Michael Neuman was in the middle of an obstacle course for NBC’s sports reality competition show “American Ninja Warrior.” The show features grueling challenges such as rope swings, pole vaults and climbing walls, all with one rule: You can’t fall.
He looked over at the sidelines of the course at Universal Studios in Los Angeles and saw his friend Ari Cohen, a 20-year-old who has mosaic trisomy 9, a rare chromosomal disorder that often leads to death before a child’s first birthday. The condition can lead to birth and congenital heart defects.
Standing in the middle of the course, sporting a kippah and a T-shirt representing his Jewish Inspiration Foundation, Neuman pointed to Cohen and said: “Ari, I’m doing this for you. You taught me that if you fall down, you get back up again. And that’s what I’m doing.”
Ari’s mother Leah, who serves on the foundation’s board, was there too. She said that moment “was captured in my heart forever.”
“I looked at Michael and I said, ‘Michael, before you go on, you know you already won,’” she told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Cohen has been involved with Neuman’s foundation, which supports Jewish youth with physical challenges through sports, since its founding in 2019. Neuman, a 29-year-old psychotherapist from Miami Beach, had previously competed on CBS’ “Million Dollar Mile” competition show and used some of his winnings from the show to launch the foundation.
But due to a number of factors — including filming times that clashed with his Shabbat observance, reality TV standards and legal restrictions — the moment Neuman shared with Cohen on the obstacle course will never be seen by viewers, nor will Neuman’s overall run that had earned him a spot in the show’s semifinals. The footage of Neuman and his foundation was cut from the episode that aired June 12 and could not be released to the families, who were all looking forward to keeping the video and photos from the show as keepsake records of their children.
“I’m hurt and I’m sad that ‘Ninja’ disregarded the story. But I’m even more sad that we don’t have those pictures,” Cohen said. “And we don’t have the video of that speech that Michael said, which is so instrumental to me.”
The backstory began on Dec. 15, 2019. Unsure of what to expect, Leah Cohen brought Ari to the Jewish Inspiration Foundation’s first event in Boca Raton, where volunteers would ultimately help him scale a climbing wall. The foundation holds training events, Spartan races and runs with the children at gyms, tracks and venues like Disney World.
“Here I am bringing my son to an obstacle course in a gym. Am I crazy?” Cohen recounted. “From that day, Ari’s life was forever changed.”
The Cohens met Eli Casper, a fellow Boca Raton resident who volunteers with the foundation and also serves on its board. Casper formed a bond with Ari, and now the pair spend every Sunday together — with Eli pushing Ari in a wheelchair as they run anywhere from six to 10 miles, rain or shine.
“When I first heard about this organization’s first event, it just aligned with me and my soul and this call to give to the community and to be there for others, do chesed,” Casper told JTA, using the Hebrew word for kindness. “Realizing some of the challenges I personally deal with in life, to realize that oh, I just ran with Ari on Sunday in a wheelchair in 90-plus degree weather here in South Florida in June, everything else after that seems easy.”
In 2022, Neuman, who is also a professional Spartan racer, qualified for “American Ninja Warrior.” He had featured Ari Cohen in his audition video to add some extra inspiration to his application.
For his first episode on the show, Leah organized a watch party at her home, where children from the foundation cheered Neuman on from her couch. Neuman fell early on in the course and was devastated because he thought he had let the kids down, Cohen said.
“I showed him a picture of the kids sitting on my couch, and they had smiles ear to ear,” Cohen said. “I said, ‘Are you kidding? You didn’t let them down. You did what they do day in and day out: they fall down, they get sick, they do what they have to do, they fall in that cold water. But then at the end of the day, they get back up, they’re stronger than ever, and they do it all over again. You just showed them that you don’t just care for them and lift them up, you’re one of them.”
Through that conversation, Cohen said, Neuman agreed to try out again the following year. She added that the show was invested in the story of the foundation and wanted to spotlight the kids on the program the next time Neuman competed.
Neuman qualified again for Season 15, set for filming in March 2023 at Universal Studios. This time, he had an idea: what if he brought some of the kids with him?
Cohen said it seemed crazy at first, but the foundation raised money and organized a trip for three of the kids, including Ari, to travel to California for the taping.
“From day one, [the show] was incredibly supportive,” Cohen said. “They wanted the story. They loved it, they fell in love with Michael, everything he stood for. And they did everything to accommodate us.”
“Cut for time”
NBC invited the children to film promotional photos and videos for the show. Cohen said they were also put up in a five-star hotel on Universal property and provided with kosher food. “They made the kids feel like a million bucks,” she said.
Then came time for Michael to take on the obstacle course.
“It was so surreal and it was so amazing,” Cohen said. “There’s Michael standing up with his yarmulke in front of I don’t know how many people and it really was a pivotal moment in my life, and I know for sure in my son’s life, to watch his hero up there. Not only someone who supports and uplifts him, but sitting there with his yarmulke.”
Neuman spoke with the children before competing, shouted Ari out during his run and then met with them backstage immediately after to present them with medals of their own.
“I hold my head up high knowing that we all came together from this ‘Ninja’ experience and gave them an experience of a lifetime,” said Neuman, who said he cannot comment on the specifics of the show due to contractual obligations.
Neuman ultimately placed 12th, which was the cutoff for advancing to the semifinals. Then came the tricky part: the next phase was set to be filmed on Friday night, the start of the Jewish sabbath.
As an observant Jew, Neuman decided to give up his place in the semifinals. Cohen said the show’s producers had already told Neuman that his foundation’s story would be featured on the show, which is filmed in its entirety before airing on television months later.
Cohen said some of Neuman’s family and friends pushed him to get rabbinic permission to compete on Shabbat, but he declined. “He says, ‘I did what I came to do, and they’re going to share our story, and it’s going to make an impact,’” she said.
With Neuman out of the semifinals, the contestant who finished in 13th was bumped up to take his place. According to Cohen, he asked if he could wear Neuman’s shirt from the Jewish Inspiration Foundation to keep representing them on the course.
After the taping, Cohen and the rest of the foundation group returned to Florida, where they began preparations for the show’s premiere. She said producers were in contact with them a few times, confirming the spelling of their names and other details for the show, which would air sometime in June.
Then an unexpected message came in from the producers: They chose not to air any footage of Neuman or the foundation.
Sam Bullard, a supervising producer for “American Ninja Warrior” who was not responsible for this specific episode but did work with Neuman, said Neuman was “cut for time” and that it’s “standard practice” to remove contestants in post-production.
“The executives go through everyone that they have and decide who they want in the show,” he explained, adding that components like gender, age and performance can all factor into who makes the final cut. He said it was not his decision.
Cohen said her assumption was that because Neuman had technically qualified for the semifinals, the show would have had to explain to viewers why he didn’t ultimately compete. And that, she said, was territory they likely wanted to avoid, especially since it could give the impression that they didn’t accommodate Neuman and his religious obligations.
Cohen said the decision was “a blow,” especially after the show had been so open and supportive of the foundation’s participation. But she was more disappointed by another decision: the show wouldn’t release the footage to the children’s families either — including Neuman’s mid-run speech to Ari.
Cohen called Bullard to plead her case, saying that the footage would have offered solace to the parents of terminally ill children.
“I said, ‘Listen, you guys made a decision not to air him. I don’t know why you did that. But that’s your thing,’” she said. “‘But at least share those pictures with us. I can’t fathom that that’s out there and one day when my son, God forbid, is not here, to know that those pictures and those videos are out there, and I won’t be able to have any comfort in looking at them and seeing them and being proud of them.’”
Bullard told Cohen he would see what he could do.
“I was told legally that it cannot be released because it’s NBC property,” he told JTA. He said people have asked countless times, for various reasons, for the show to share footage, and the answer is always no.
Bullard applauded Neuman and the foundation for their inspiring story, but said that ultimately, part of working in television is disappointing people and “dream-killing.”
“They’re eternally valued, and I’m sorry they’re disappointed with the result,” Bullard added.
“You try to be as positive as possible because at the end of the day, this amazing thing happened,” Cohen said. “We managed to pull off this amazing trip, and Michael’s dream was to have the kids next to him, and we did just that. The fact that we’re not able to share this story, that we’re not able to share that experience is just really, really sad.”
Casper, too, was disappointed by the show’s decision. But he commended Neuman for standing up for his faith.
“On the one hand, it’s a letdown to hear that message,” he said. “On the other hand, such an empowering and inspiring and beautiful message that you know what, I’m a committed Jew. Shabbat is more important to me than getting advancements in my career, in my sport, for my organization, for national or international television or whatever. That, I think, is even more powerful and inspiring to all of us within the organization and without.”