By Alisa Roberts.
1. You recently won your first Mixed Martial Arts fight. What sparked your initial interest in martial arts and self- defense?
It started when I was a kid. I was always very active, but because I grew up on shlichus I was never sent to martial arts or gymnastics classes. So I began to pick up some martial arts and gymnastics on my own. I actually picked up so much that later I was teaching gymnastics to children at a gym in Crown Heights. I really pushed myself to learn different things; I always had that attitude.
Then when I was 12, my parents brought in an assistant rabbi, Rabbi Machon Shapiro, who ended up staying with us for the better part of 11 years. He happened to be a Krav Maga instructor. I never had formal lessons in Krav Maga, because for most of that time I was living in yeshiva. But whenever I was home I had access to an instructor. And because he was always working on his technique, he always needed a training partner. So from when I was 13 or 14 years old, I had that very close relationship – he was almost like an older brother to me – with an instructor. And while the lessons weren’t formal, I feel they were better. Since he was working on how to teach his classes, I not only got to learn the techniques, but also how to teach them. That stuck with me. So he was an important influence. I’m also the second-oldest in my family, so I’ve always looked out for my younger siblings. And it’s just my personality. I was the first-aid guy at camp because they knew that if something went wrong I was going to be there, ready and willing to help.
I grew into a self-defense and security mindset. Through a friend who was a lifeguard instructor, I became a certified Red Cross Lifeguard, Swimming, First-Aid and CPR instructor. That was also very much connected to these self-defense and security aspects of my life. I was always trying to get new certifications, to grow in new areas, and to challenge myself in new ways, and throughout that time I also had an interest in self-defense and martial arts. So I would teach other students, or I would review techniques with other students and in the process help teach other people.
2. What led up to the fight? Can you tell us about the training and the fight itself?
In January of last year, when I was in Los Angeles in my final year of studying to become a rabbi, I had a high school friend who mentioned that he went to a Mixed Martial Arts gym where the trainer does all forms of martial arts and self-defense. That sounded great to me. I hadn’t been training, and I had been looking for an outlet. I had a very busy schedule but there was a class that fit into my evening breaks, so I was able to attend that class two to four times a week. That was my first introduction to MMA, as opposed to strictly self-defense training. But in my mind the two complemented each other, because you learn new techniques that you can figure out how to apply to self-defense. Also, you’re learning that discipline and respect – that mindset – that reaches across the board and helps anywhere in life. So I ended up attending classes there for about four months before I was ordained as a rabbi. Almost the entire class came to my ordination, which was quite a thing. It was an interesting group; a friend of mine had long blue hair, one of the guys was a big bouncer… But they’re all very nice people, so everyone had a blast. My parents really enjoyed speaking to them. And that was my introduction to Mixed Martial Arts.
I was back home in San Diego for Tishrei. The community is in the middle of building a new shul. It was taking a long time, and it had been rough on my parents, so they asked me if I could stay home and assist with the community. Of course I agreed to stay home and help them with whatever they needed. For a few months I didn’t really do anything outside of teaching classes and running the Hebrew school. I was keeping in shape – I enjoy living a healthy lifestyle – but I wanted to pick up with my martial arts and self-defense training. So I found a nearby gym and I walked in. They said, “Oh, a rabbi. Interesting. That’s not exactly what we expected.” I spoke to the owner of the gym. We got along immediately; our personalities clicked. So I ended up joining the gym. This was about five months ago.
I went regularly for three weeks. They have all sorts of classes: boxing, kickboxing, Muay Thai, Jui-jitsu, wrestling… They also have strength and conditioning classes and cardio classes. So after testing out almost all the different classes, the owner – and this is Thierry Sokoudjou, who is a former UFC professional world-class fighter – came over to me and said, “Listen, it looks like you have some former experience.” I explained to him that my interest was self-defense, and he understood that, but he said, “In order to help you with your self-defense goal, why don’t you try testing yourself in an actual combat situation in an octagon? There are referees and there are judges, and they’re watching out for your safety, but you have that pressure of actually having an opponent who is out to get you.” I told him that it was not for me, that I didn’t really feel comfortable with it. I’m not a violent person at all. I’ve never been in a fight in my life. Self-defense is largely about avoiding fights. He said, “OK. But think about it.”
For the next month and a half or so, he kept coming over and saying, “I have a fight this Saturday.” I said, “I can’t do Saturdays. It’s my Sabbath.” I told him I don’t drive; he asked if someone could drive me. I told him I couldn’t be driven anywhere either; he asked if they could get me a hotel room. I explained that I couldn’t go to do the weigh-ins; he asked if they could bring the scales to me. I explained that I couldn’t even step on the scale. By now he’s probably an expert in the laws of Shabbos. But he kept trying to find a way. So after I’d been training there about two and a half months, he came over to me and said, “I found a fight on a Sunday. I want you to do it. They understand you’re a rabbi, we’re going to pair you up with someone who is also not aggressive. At least give yourself that mental challenge.” I’d been thinking about it for a while, and I realized that if I wanted to be teaching self-defense, I might as well test myself and see how my mind reacts in a high-stress situation. So I said, “OK fine, we’ll do one.”
And that’s when the training exploded. I had to drop 11 pounds in a month and a half, and I was already in shape. So that meant cutting from about 13% body fat to 9% body fat. That’s leaner than I’ve been since high school. It was a huge challenge for me, both physically and mentally. They told me, “You know, when you get in the ring, we want you to get fierce and aggressive.” I would always tell them, “I need to be extra careful especially when I get in the ring because I don’t want to hurt the other guy. I want to win; I want to show that I can control myself in this situation and that I can defeat an opponent, but that doesn’t mean I want to hurt the guy.” So they were constantly telling me that I needed to get more aggressive.
When the event finally arrived, I was waiting for my nerves to kick in the whole time. But I was able to keep calm. The actual fight was relaxed and very controlled. It worked out, baruch Hashem, that neither of us got hurt. They came over to me afterwards and said, “He’s lucky it was you. Because you had a lot more skill than him, but you weren’t trying to hurt him. If the person had been better than you, he wouldn’t have had the same mercy that you had.” I said, “I appreciate that, but again, for me this wasn’t a fight, it was a challenge. It was a test.” That’s how I felt about it. I won by TKO (technical knockout), which means the referee stopped the fight because one person showed dominance and the other showed a lack of ability to defend themselves properly. I was landing enough strikes for the referee to call the fight.
3. How did you feel after the fight?
Actually, afterwards I met up with my opponent and we spoke for a few hours. We went to his gym to do some training because he had asked me to go over some technique with him. I made a friend out of it.
I can never see myself being a fighter, for two reasons. First, because I don’t feel there is enough purpose in it. You’re fighting for people’s entertainment. Self-defense is a higher purpose. Teaching martial arts, where you’re teaching discipline and self-respect, that has a purpose. But just fighting is something I could never see myself doing. Second, I don’t feel I could be more aggressive, so I don’t think it would be a good idea for me to get in the ring when I know that I’m not willing to really hurt the other person, and they’re really willing to hurt me.
I’m definitely happy I had the experience. I learned a lot about myself and the techniques, about the self-defense application of them. So I’m glad that I did it. But again, I could not see myself doing it regularly or professionally.
4. What does your family think about it? What about the community?
My family enjoys the self-defense aspect. I take my siblings to the shooting range with me occasionally. My mother goes pretty often; my father doesn’t enjoy the noise, so he is a bit more hesitant. They are both very supportive of the activity and the healthy lifestyle. They were nervous about me getting into an actual fight in an octagon because I could get hurt. But in general, they’re supportive of my plan. It’s so important to have support, especially from people who care about you.
Most people in the community, given that they’ve known me for a long time, were very supportive. They understood that I wasn’t doing this because I was looking for a fight. They understood what it meant to me. Some of the people from my community even came to the event. There are one or two people who have told me, “I understand why you are doing it, but I still don’t think it’s a good thing.” And I understand where they’re coming from, because I hate watching MMA events. They are very brutal. But again, for me that wasn’t the mindset. So while I understand that it doesn’t look nice, it was a valuable experience for someone who plans on teaching self-defense.
5. Can you tell us more about your plans to teach self-defense? Do you have other ideas for how to bring more of this kind of activity to the Jewish community?
I think Jewish schools could focus more on physical activities. It’s tough ground, because the schools are already giving the kids so much. They have to do secular studies and religious studies, so it’s difficult to ask them to add more physical activity to an already packed day. That’s why I was thinking an after-school program would be better. I personally I hope to be able to open up a center that offers these things within the next year or so. And not just for kids, but for adults as well. I think we need a frum gym, where there are separate men’s’ and women’s’ classes. I think communities on their own should be working towards getting things like this set up. Many have. I hope to be able to offer one more.
As far as security and self-defense goes, I hope to eventually give seminars. I’m doing a lot of training now in order to build the knowledge to give these seminars. Everyone should have some knowledge of self-defense, should know something about security. People don’t realize. We live in a nicer area, but so many things can happen if you don’t have the right mindset. I personally was once hit on the subway. I was riding with some friends and someone tried to start a fight and he hit me. Because of my training, I was able to remain calm and the guy walked away. When you’re learning self-defense, they teach you the laws and liability of fighting. If you get in a fight with someone it’s going to be a bigger problem than if you can avoid it, so obviously you avoid the fight at all costs. But you never know what can happen. The Jewish community needs to be a lot more aware, and people should be prepared. Even if I offer a seminar, there’s only so much you can do in a couple of hours. People should read up about it, develop the mindset, be aware of the space around them. These things are extremely important but often overlooked. Especially since the Jewish community is almost always the target. I know recently there was a heightened alert for Jewish communities. There was a government warning saying that that there was a credible threat against Jewish communities and to be aware. And I doubt most people heard about it. For me, that means something. I’d say that 90-95% of Jews living in Jewish communities probably didn’t know about it. And if they did, what are they going to do about it? Lock their doors? There has to be awareness and preparation. I want to be able to offer that to the Jewish community.
6. Have you taken anything from your training, or even your fight, that benefits you in your life as a rabbi and as a Jew?
Definitely. Number one, I feel that a lot of people, especially in Jewish communities, tend to neglect their physical health and focus on the spiritual. The spiritual is extremely important, but as the Rambam says, we need to take the middle path. You can’t be all physical or all spiritual. You are put in a body for a reason, and you need to take care of that body. So I feel that physical health is extremely important. Also, the discipline and respect involved – if you’re doing it with the right mindset and you’re doing it properly – it’s like a laser. You’re so focused on it. You can’t replace that with anything else. Gymnastics, martial arts, swimming – they’re called disciplines for a reason. You really need to focus to reach any goals. I think for kids these days, there is so much available technology that we’re getting to the point where every kid walks around with an iPod. They’re looking at a screen the entire day, and their thumbs are the only part of their bodies that they’re exercising… It’s not healthy. So I feel that the frum community especially needs this sort of outlet. In Crown Heights there’s a place called Jimmy’s, where I was an instructor for a while. It gives frum kids the opportunity to learn gymnastics, dance, and martial arts in a frum atmosphere. You’re in a comfortable place but you’re still getting the discipline. I think that’s brilliant, and I think the west coast is lacking in that. Even though Los Angeles and San Diego are both in the top five healthiest cities in the Unites States, we are still lacking in opportunity.
I’m not saying we should only focus on martial arts or gymnastics. It definitely needs to be paired with religious studies. Personally, my goal is to open up a health center that offers these sorts of physical fitness activities, but at the same time offers life-coaching in order to help people live a frum life in a healthy and happy way. People are happier when they’re active. I love going to the gym. It’s something that calms me down and relaxes me; I have a great time while I’m there. It doesn’t replace my studying. When I was in yeshiva I never let it get in the way of my learning. I would never skip a class in order to go to the gym. And it’s the same now; I would never skirt my other duties in order to go to the gym. But if you have both together working in harmony, both become a lot better. It all becomes stronger.
7. What’s the message you have taken from this experience?
A lot of people feel that being a Jew limits your abilities to do what you want to do, to become who you want to be, to test yourself in certain ways. I just want to say: religion isn’t getting in your way. Obviously, you can’t put religion to the side. But you can use what you have learned and apply it to any other part of your life. You’ll become better at what you’re trying to accomplish, and your religion will become stronger too. I think that’s extremely important for people to understand. Yes, I’m involved in martial arts and self-defense, I shoot competitively, and I’m a swimming instructor. But that doesn’t mean that I skipped all my time in yeshiva. I accomplished all of that during my breaks. And I managed that because I had that discipline from my studying. It works both ways. There’s a discipline you learn from martial arts and there’s a discipline you learn from sitting in yeshiva and studying. They complement each other. My message is: don’t use religion as an excuse. Use what you’ve learned to help reach your goals, and your goals will help you learn more about yourself as a Jew.