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From dojo to bimah, martial arts meets Judaism
By ALEZA GOLDSMITH
The Jewish Bulletin of Northern California
January 24, 2001
SAN FRANCISCO, Even Jewish mothers and rabbis are doing it.
Bay Area Jews from across the spectrum are discovering that martial
training not only strengthens
them physically but can also enhance their spirituality.
Take Rabbi Daniel Kohn of Tiburon's Congregation Kol Shofar. An aikido
black belt, he has taken many a
lesson from his martial arts dojo (practice room) to the Conservative
``How can you empty yourselves?" Kohn once asked congregants during a
``The emptier we become," he explained, ``the more space we create in
our lives for other peopleand for
This lesson on Kabbalah was one Kohn knew well, derived from a highly
respected teacher no, not a rabbi
or any other Jewish scholar but from his aikido instructor.
Kohn had encountered conflict while trying to defend himself against
multiple attackers, and his instructor,
sensing a problem, stepped in.
``She told me too much of my ego was involved in trying to defeat
said Kohn. ``I needed to remove
myself so that my ego, in the outcome of this conflict, would become more
empty and there'd be nothing to get in
the way of the attack."
His instructor's advice worked wonders. And his sermon idea took shape.
``As I practice over the years and continue in my life as a rabbi, the
more I realize there are these amazing
parallels between the philosophies of martial arts and Judaism," said Kohn.
``Both promote the creation of world
peace through improving individuals and society."
Aikido's peaceful philosophy and potential for good may be the Jewish
attraction, said Alan Van Gardner,
a third-degree black belt and middle school coordinator for Brandeis Hillel
Day School in San Rafael.
Aikido, a Japanese art of self-defense, means ``the way of harmonious
energy." It originated in the
aftermath of World War II and promotes a non-violent resolution to attacks,
according to Van Gardner.
``Judaism and aikido in essence get to the same things," he said. ``How
not to harm others, how to dignify
someone else even though they don't share your point of view, how to bring a
presence and sacredness to an
Van Gardner has been both a Jewish educator and an aikidoga for close
20 years. ``There's tremendous
potential for using aikido to re-awaken the Jewish soul," said the Petaluma
resident. ``The reflection, preparation
and preliminary thinking utilized in martial arts all really come from the
ethical code of the Torah."
Kohn agrees, noting that his studies in aikido commenced 11 years ago,
just as his studies in rabbinical
school came to a close.
``I was worried that being out of rabbinical school, my ego might
outstrip its boundaries," he said. ``I knew
myself enough to know that as a teacher in front of people, I needed a
counterbalance some sort of practice where I
would always be a beginner."
Karate, which developed earlier than aikido, is another martial art
``It cuts across all ethnic, religious and spiritual lines," said Palo
Alto resident Desmond Tuck, a
fourth-degree karate black belt. ``It creates a bond between the people who
The attorney first took up martial arts as a child, for self-defense
purposes. Growing up in Durbin, South
Africa, Tuck repeatedly felt the sting of anti-Semitism. In particular, he
remembered the taunts of a student on the
school bus ``who called me 'Jew Boy' never by my real name.
``I just didn't want to be afraid anymore," said Tuck, who has also
studied judo and is president of the
California Japan Karate Federation Goju Ryu Association. ``I wanted
He believes many Jewish children study martial arts for self-defense
purposes. ``Jews feel a bit
persecuted," he said, ``and it feels nice to be able to fight.
``In order to be good Jews and lead good Jewish lives we must look
towards self-preservation," he said.
``A healthy way to accomplish that is essential."
Tuck is instructor of the Maccabi Karate Club at the Albert L. Schultz
Jewish Community Center in Palo
Alto, and for close to a decade has served as coach of the San Francisco
karate team for the JCC Maccabi Games,
an international Jewish youth sports competition. Last summer, his two teams
of five brought home 16 medals.
``I don't usually encourage competition except for the Maccabi Games,"
he said. ``It's really important for
Jewish kids to learn a martial art for many reasons and this provides a
where they can, at least, meet other
Jewish kids doing it."
In Mill Valley, at West America Tae Kwon Do, a substantial number of
students adults and children are
``I do it, both my children do it and my husband was doing it for
awhile," said Mill Valley resident Marcey
Sperling. With three years of training under their belts, Sperling, son
Holden, 11, and daughter Arielle, 8, are all
competitive medal holders.
``My kids really appreciate the fact that their father and I have done
tae kwon do," Sperling said. ``And like
Shabbat, it's an opportunity for us to spend family-time together."
Tae kwon do means ``the way of the hands and feet" and features
kicks and kicking
combinations. Like most martial arts, it does not encourage fighting, unless
it is unavoidable.
``When you are fighting, the last thing you want to do is get into an
adversarial relationship," said Mill
Valley resident Bob Real, a red belt in tae kwon do. ``Just as human life is
very precious in Judaism, in tae kwon do
you try and have a lot of conflict resolution. It's about respect and focus
and thinking about what you're doing.
``Tae kwon do is not only a belief system but also a way of life," he
added. ``Just like in Judaism."
His 11-year-old son, Joshua, said Judaism and tae kwon do are the two
most important things ``that I feel
inside." Also, attending West America Tae Kwon Do with his dad ``makes me
feel closer to him," he added.
``It's nice," said the ``A" student at Hebrew Academy in San Francisco.
``If I need help, I can ask him, or
if he needs help, he can ask me."
The latter is often the case, since Bob Real's red belt ranks lower
Joshua's black a belt that commands
the title of ``mister" for its holders.
``As we progressed he became far better and in many ways he teaches
said the elder Real. ``I once
heard someone say, 'I have to ask Mr. Real something,' and I said 'I'm right
here.' But they said, pointing to my
son, 'No, no, Mr. Real.'"
It all comes with the territory of being a good dad.
``In Judaism the father is commanded to teach his son how to swim by
extension how to prepare for life,
protect himself, defend his family and defend his country," he said. ``Tae
kwon do, aside from being a good
cardio-aerobic sport, provides that self-confidence and teaches those
lifetime survival skills."
Even young Holden Sperling has found he can apply those skills to
everyday life. ``In tae kwon do you
have to study, study, study," said the Brandeis Hillel Day School student.
``I know that's what I'll have to do for my
Joshua Real agreed. With high hopes of holding his bar mitzvah at the
Western Wall in Israel, he is
convinced his martial arts training will come in handy.
``Tae kwon has helped me to focus," he said. Concentration will be
since ``there's going to be lots of
The youngster, who has attended services at Kol Shofar, found it ``very
interesting" to learn that Kohn
``I see him a bit differently," he said, admitting the rabbi has earned
some points. ``I think it's neat."
But Kohn cannot imagine his life in the rabbinate without aikido.
``If I didn't do this, I feel my Jewish spirituality would be
incomplete," he said. ``My aikido helps
complete my Jewish spirituality, and similarly, my Jewish practice and
knowledge invests far more spirituality into
my aikido training.
``I think I am a better Jew because I do aikido and a better aikidoga
because I am a Jew.''
© JTA Inc., 2000. May not be reproduced
without written permission.
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