From the American Jewish World Newspaper March 2023
“Yaakov hamelech,” a fellow competitor cheered, meaning “Yaakov the king,” after Yaakov Buchbinder ran an obstacle course designed to test his athletic ability.
Buchbinder is a 19-year-old St. Louis Park native who spent his summer in Israel as a contestant on Ninja Israel — Israel’s version of the U.S. television show American Ninja Warrior. He appeared in the fifth season’s premiere episode on Jan. 8 as the only American competitor.
In 2016, Buchbinder’s sister introduced him to American Ninja Warrior. Looking back, he said, “It looked like a lot of fun, so I thought, Why not try it?”
He found a local gym in Eden Prairie, Obstacle Academy. What started as a once- or twice-a-year activity became more serious training in 2019. He began working as a coach at the gym at the end of 2021.
Besides the inconvenience of covering Buchbinder’s coaching duties, Obstacle Academy co-owner Hunter Guerard said the OA crew was stoked for Buchbinder, whom they call Yakky, to compete and visit Israel.
Never having been to Israel, Buchbinder thought Ninja Israel could be the perfect opportunity to go, so he sent in a video audition. He then went to Israel for an in-person audition.
“I was kind of just in awe to be filming for a TV show, and to be competing internationally was just kind of a surreal moment,” Buchbinder said. “At the audition I was thinking how even if I didn’t make it on the show, to even just have that opportunity to go and to try out for a show would be so cool.”
He visited local ninja gyms, including the Ninja Pool — the first gym in the world to have its obstacles above water to simulate the shows’ courses.
When it came time for the competition, Buchbinder booked a one-way ticket, not knowing how long filming would take. Over seven weeks in Israel, he enjoyed the Dead Sea, surfed in Tel Aviv, visited the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem and competed in Haifa.
His excitement shone through in his aired interviews. He showed off his T-shirt, which he designed for Ninja Israel. It has his name in Hebrew and English and a silhouette of Israel with him scaling the left side of the country, which he said looks like a warped wall, an obstacle that appears on the show. With a big smile he pointed out that his silhouette is hanging from the top of the wall, Haifa, where he was filming.
Commentator Niv Raskin said in Hebrew, “The truth is that it is difficult to compete with Yaakov’s enthusiasm.”
Easily underestimated with his eagerness and a lanky look compared to his bulkier competitors, Buchbinder held his own in head-to-head competition. Previous seasons of the show had competitors racing the clock, but now the athletes face off one on one. Of 10 competitors, the top three who make it the farthest on the obstacles in the least amount of time move on to the semifinals.
“I found out that it was going to be head-to-head the day of filming,” Buchbinder said. “It was kind of a big shock for everyone.”
While Buchbinder ultimately lost in his heat to 29-year-old Israeli Hadar Ben Simon, he took the lead for a time and completed his obstacles — up until Ben Simon finished the course and Buchbinder just missed his jump to the final platform.
Buchbinder commented on the support and sportsmanship of the competitors. Ben Simon tried to catch Buchbinder as he fell, though Buchbinder managed to catch a rope and swing down to a mat.
“Everyone treated each other very well, and from what I thought, everyone wanted everyone to do well,” he said. “That’s what makes it a little different this season. ... Even other people who were competing were, like, watching from the sidelines cheering people on and wanting people to do well.”
And the camaraderie and good impression Buchbinder made is exemplified in his “Yaakov hamelech” accolade.
He said he spoke to some of his fellow competitors after his run and that they had thought Buchbinder was there just to be on TV and didn’t know how to “do ninja.” But they told him they were impressed after seeing him take on the obstacles.
“My main goal was just to not fall on the first obstacle,” he told the AJW. He said he was more focused on finishing his obstacles than going fast and qualifying for the next round. “Overall, I was just trying to take it all in. So, I know that the whole process goes by pretty fast, so throughout the days, just being on set, I was just trying to look around, take it all in, not let it go by too fast.”
Buchbinder was able to keep the experience going, sticking around after his attempt to test obstacles for the next set of athletes. He helped showrunners gauge if the obstacle courses had an appropriate difficulty level.
When he ran his contest, some friends in Israel supported him in person on the sidelines, and his family watched live via video chat. Only seen live in person, Buchbinder watched video messages of his family sharing their support prior to his run.
They all wore his specially made Ninja Israel shirts to cheer him on. Buchbinder was home in St. Louis Park when the episode aired, and he held a watch party for family and friends. For an activity, attendees made obstacle courses out of candy.
“That was really fun because it’s so cool to see it actually on TV, kind of like from that outsider perspective,” Buchbinder said. It was fun keeping how the competition went a secret during the few months between filming and the episode’s air date, he said.
“We’re really proud watching him go out there and making it happen,” Guerard said on behalf of Obstacle Academy. “There’s a lot of hoops to jump through” — traveling, the application process — and “he was able to get through it all, make it all happen, find his way up there to the other side of the planet, compete and still represent and do great.”
Guerard, who has competed on American Ninja Warrior, observed that Buchbinder “ran just a little bit conservative. ... I think he could have won the race.”
Maybe Buchbinder will win his next contest. Buchbinder is taking classes at the University of Minnesota with his sights set on returning to the show, either again in Israel or on American Ninja Warrior.