From dojo to the bimah, martial arts meet Judaism

Even Jewish mothers and rabbis are doing it.

Bay Area Jews from across the spectrum are discovering that martial arts 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 synagogue's bimah.

"How can you empty yourselves?" Kohn once asked congregants during a sermon.

"The emptier we become," he explained, "the more space we create in our lives for other people…and for God."

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 them," 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 nonviolent 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 everyday situation."

Van Gardner has been both a Jewish educator and an aikidoga for close to 20 years. "There's tremendous potential for using aikido to reawaken 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 attracting Jews.

"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 do it."

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 confidence."

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 forum where they can, at least, meet other Jewish kids doing it."

In Mill Valley, at West America Tae Kwon Do School, a substantial number of students — adults and children — are Jewish.

"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 powerful 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 than 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 me," 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 bar mitzvah."

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 vital since "there's going to be lots of people there."

The youngster, who has attended services at Kol Shofar, found it "very interesting" to learn that Kohn practices aikido.

"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."

Other Page One Stories

Why did Arafat refuse 'offer he can't refuse'?