The words focus, intensity, speed, accuracy, power and excellence are highlighted on five banners hung on a wall of the Warren Levi Martial Arts dojo in Cedarhurst. Below them is another banner with the phrase, “A Black belt is a White belt that never quits.” The white belt is for beginners.
Watching Levi’s students display their karate skills on Dec. 29 was a lesson in those five words. Eight members have learned them well, as they and Levi, who has studied karate for more than 30 years, earned spots on the U.S. Maccabi karate team for the 2017 World Maccabiah Games, which will take place July 4 to 17 in Israel. All team members are black belts. Levi is considered a shihan, a master of the martial arts.
Akiva Fink, Dylan Saltzman and Menachem Feierman will compete in the junior boys division. Aliza Abramson and Rebecca Obstfeld are in the open women’s division. In the open men’s division, it’s Amit Ziv and Yonatan Schultz. Levi and Dr. Dennis Feierman, Menachem’s father, are in the masters division. Due to a shoulder injury, Dennis will not compete at the games. This is the first time that nine members of the same dojo — and a father and son — have made the team, according to Maccabi USA officials.
A dojo is a school or practice hall where karate, judo or other martial arts are taught. “These students are like my family and I’m very proud of them, and this brings me great joy and pride that I helped them and they are representing my dojo,” Levi said as he, his students and some friends celebrated the holidays after classes on Dec. 29.
Regional tryouts for the team took place on Nov. 20. The nine competed against athletes from across the U.S. at the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway High School in Cedarhurst. “All of my students participated in special tournament training, put in extra time and dedicated many months in preparation for the tryouts,” Levi said.
The Maccabiah Games, which take place every four years, are the world’s largest Jewish athletic competition. There are four categories of competition: open, junior, masters and Paralympics.
Levi’s students who made the team range in age from 14-year-old Saltzman, a freshman at North Shore Hebrew Academy High School in Great Neck, to Dennis Feierman, a spry 63-year-old anesthesiologist affiliated with Maimonides Medical Center. Ziv is a transplanted Israeli who works as a computer programmer for Bloomberg. He immigrated to the U.S. in 2009. Abramson, a student at Touro College in Brooklyn, moved from her native Florida to Cedarhurst about two years ago. Schultz is awaiting the results of the NYPD exam he just took, and Obstfeld is a married mother of two boys, ages 5 and almost 3.
The competitors’ common denominator is a love of karate, and of training with, and learning from, Levi and the dojo’s other instructors. All of the U.S. residents have been to Israel before, and are looking forward to competing in the games.
More artistic than athletic as a youth, Obstfeld said that her mother didn’t allow her to take up the martial arts — unlike her six brothers. She caught the bug from Levi and hasn’t stopped since.
“Getting here is half the battle, and it’s a dream to make the team,” said Obstfeld, 30, an Oceanside resident who has studied karate for 13 years, including the dozen she has worked with Levi. “Training drives me, and I really enjoy learning new skills. You never attain perfection, but you keep driving toward it.”
Ziv, 33, lives in Forest Hills, and trained in Queens before he joined Levi’s dojo. His wife, Jill, was a black belt before him. His mother- and father-in-law are also black belts.
“This is just unbelievable,” Ziv said of making the team. “All of my family will be there to watch me,” he added, explaining that like all of the dojo members, he is beginning to ratchet up his training, which, for him, includes running five or six miles as many as six days a week.
Saltzman and Fink, 17, a senior at Davis Renov Stahler Yeshiva High School for Boys in Woodmere, said they are thrilled about their accomplishment. “This is so much a part of my life, I don’t think I’ll ever stop,” Saltzman said.
“I was surprised, definitely excited,” added Fink. “This is a really big opportunity.” Both are Woodmere residents.
Abramson, 21, said that Levi has pushed all of them to this level. “He said, ‘You will make the Maccabi team,’ and I said, ‘Sure, sure,’” she recalled, laughing. “I love it — the training and taking that leap of faith in yourself.”
Far Rockaway resident Schultz, 22, has an associate’s degree in criminal justice from Nassau Community College. “This means a lot,” he said of making the team. “I get to show my Jewish pride and represent the U.S.” The tryouts, as it happened, were on his birthday.
No one may be as pleased as Dennis Feierman, who can still cheer for Menachem. “I’m very happy with what my son did, and that he stuck with it,” the Far Rockaway resident said. “I’m very proud of him.”
Menachem, 17, a senior at Mesivta Ateres Yaakov Ruth & Hyman Simon High School in Lawrence, has studied karate for four years. “Dad had me join,” he said, “and learning how to fight, it’s amazing.”