Sensei to the Orthodox
A rabbi teaches martial arts to Jewish kids in New York, whom he calls a ‘weak target’
Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.
Gary Moskowitz, a rabbi and sensei teaching martial arts to Orthodox children in Flushing, Queens, thinks religious intolerance has little if nothing to do with the fact that a large proportion of recent “knockout game” attacks victims have been Orthodox Jews. As he sees it, Orthodox Jews are being targeted for the simple fact that they are not physically fit.
“Jews are literally a weak target,” he tells The Times of Israel.
Moskowitz, a 56-year-old former NYPD officer, grew up a kippah-wearing boy in the Bronx in the 1960s. He learned the only way for him to survive the mean streets was to fight back against bullies who attacked him, including one who threw his skullcap on the ground and urinated on it. Now, many years later, he believes it is still important for Jews to know how to fend off attackers.
Despite Moskowitz’s street cred, professional and educational accomplishments, and black belts in multiple martial arts, he says many rabbis and teachers find his zeal to teach young Jews self-defense rather unorthodox.
“They tell me, ‘It’s not the Jewish way,’” he reports. The martial arts master obviously disagrees. “We’re not a militant people, but we have the right to defend ourselves. How can the rabbis say that it’s not the Jewish way when we just need to look at the Bible to see how David fought the Philistines?”
Moskowitz himself was greatly influenced by a figure in much more recent Jewish history — the late controversial rabbi and political leader Meir Kahane. “I knew Rabbi Kahane personally and he had a big impact on me,” the rabbi sensei shares. “He said that if a Jew gets kicked, then the Jew is going to kick back.”
Moskowitz admits he trained intensively as a teenager at Jewish Defense League paramilitary training camps, and later worked as an instructor at them. But he maintains that he differentiates between this physical training and Kahane-ist political views. “That’s something separate,” he says.
This isn’t the first time that people have questioned Moskowitz’s motives and methods. He was reportedly fired from the NYPD in 1991 for conducting personal business while on duty (a court dismissed Moskowitz’s suit challenging the dismissal). Then, a decade ago, he courted controversy when he rankled people in Greenport, New York, to the point where a congregation that had hired him resorted to changing the locks on the synagogue door to keep him out. More recently, he has been running a scientifically unproven martial arts-based therapeutic program for children with cancer.
Despite all his experience, Moskowitz still finds working with Orthodox Jewish kids a challenge. “I need to work twice as hard with Jewish kids,” he says. “They’re cowards. They shiver in their pants if you so little as grab them by the collar.”
He claims his work is cut out for him in terms of toughening these kids up. “They have no recess or physical education in their yeshivas,” he laments. “I’m glad their parents are realizing the obligation to protect and nurture the body and are sending them to me.”
For the young students, however, it takes a while for this idea to sink in. “I have to keep telling the boys to forget about their kippah falling off, not to worry about it.”
“One boy was very afraid of ripping his tzitzis. I reassured him his mother would be more than happy to buy him a new set if that happened,” the teacher recounts.
Around 60 young people come to Moskowitz for training these days, down from 250 some years ago. “But I am expecting numbers to go back up, given all the media coverage of these ‘knockout’ attacks,” he says hopefully.
“We live in a violent society.”