Portland rabbi lifts to a higher power

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WESTBROOK — Carolyn Braun enjoys powering through obstacles.

At 4 feet 9 inches, she isn’t what comes to mind when one imagines a powerlifter. The petite Portland woman is part of a new movement taking over the male-dominated sport.

“It really breaks the glass ceiling – the stained-glass ceiling,” she said while laughing at her own joke.

What sounds like a punchline is actually her reality: a powerlifting rabbi named Braun.

Braun, who is the spiritual leader at Temple Beth El in Portland, is very aware of the contradiction in her identity.

“I’m the kind of person who’s always straddling bridges,” she said. “I never fit in one place.”

Her two paths have a similar theme, though. Braun, who turns 60 next week, makes room for herself where others like her have previously been unwelcome.

Braun was part of the first class of women admitted to the rabbinical program at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where she received her master’s degree in Judaic Studies. She was ordained in 1988 and became rabbi at Temple Beth El in 1994.

Five or so years after moving to Portland, Braun began strength training with Matt Israelson, who owns Dyna Maxx gym in Westbrook. After years of doing exercises to maintain basic health and wellness, Braun developed an interest in powerlifting.

“The minute I let out that I might want to do this, everyone was on top of me,” she said.

The gym, at 120 Main St., has 40-50 members, Israelson said. Braun said they’ve become like a family, and with their encouragement, she started powerlifting four years ago.

When she started, Braun could dead-lift 135 pounds. She trains four days a week, is now lifting 248, and is close to reaching her goal of 253 pounds.

After 18 years of working together, Israelson said the biggest change he’s seen in Braun since she started powerlifting is her motivation. He said she now sets goals for herself and is determined to reach them.

Braun has noticed this in herself, too, and said it’s changed the way she thinks about her progress.

“I think my disappointments are bigger,” she said. “If I don’t make something I’m in a snit for the rest of the day.”

Competitions are another new aspect of Braun’s life. Her first powerlifting meet was in 2015 and her next is Aug. 5. She typically enters the masters class for older women.

With most powerlifters in their 20s and 30s, Braun said she’s not only shocked that she chose to do this in her 50s, but that she chose to do this at all.

“I never imagined at any stage in my life I’d be doing this,” she said.

Braun said she didn’t start powerlifting so she could compete, but now enjoys it greatly. Israelson hosts meets in Westbrook and said lately 30 percent of the competitors are women.

Additionally, half of the members at Dyna Maxx are women.

“This gym is really special in that it accepts all kinds of people,” Braun said.

This applies to identities beyond gender, she said.

“Most people here have never met a rabbi before,” she said. “This breaks stereotypes.”

Braun said being a powerlifter and a rabbi go hand-in-hand for her. She said she often borrows from powerlifting when trying to balance her duties as a rabbi.

“(When powerlifting) you have to stand in the right place, hold something in the right place, and be in one place,” she said. “As a rabbi I need to be in 20 places.”

Powerlifting, while difficult, has also given Braun a space to relax.

“As a rabbi I’m always dealing with emotions and making hard decisions, but when I come here I don’t have to think about any of that,” she said. “The task is simple: just pick it up.”

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or kgardner@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

Carolyn Braun said she enjoys powerlifting because she can clear her head, unlike her work as a rabbi, which requires juggling many tasks.

In addition to being the rabbi at Temple Beth El in Portland, Carolyn Braun, 59, is also a powerlifter at Dyna Maxx gym in Westbrook.

Carolyn Braun, of Portland, trains at Dyna Maxx gym in Westbrook four days a week and will compete in her next meet on Aug. 5.

At only 4 feet nine inches tall, Rabbi Carolyn Braun can dead lift almost 250 pounds.

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I'm a reporter for The Forecaster covering Freeport, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, and Cape Elizabeth. I'm from a small town in NH no one's ever heard of. When not reporting, I can be found eating pasta and reading books, often at the same time.