By Larry Gordon
Students were able to leave yeshiva early on Friday as long as you mentioned his name as the reason you had to make that early exit. That was the story in my yeshiva high school in Brooklyn in the 1970s. In case you were not already dressed for the occasion and your rebbe gave you this “Where do you think you are going at 11:45 a.m. when dismissal is not until noon?” look, all you had to answer was, “Alex Sternberg, rebbe.”
Frankly, I was okay with that reality, as I was not interested in donning those little white uniforms with the different color belts to hold the pants up and the jacket closed. But for many of the people in my class in those days, taking karate instruction from Alex was an eye-opening, refreshing, and liberating experience.
And to think, I only met Dr. Sternberg a few years ago and only sat down with him to talk about life and karate a few weeks ago in preparation for this article. So why now, well after a career as an exercise physiologist in pulmonary medicine, does he want to refocus his personal efforts in the direction of karate?
While he has been a medical professional for the last few decades, the name Alex Sternberg more than anything else is synonymous with self-defense and training karate champions, including a number of gold-medal winners at international competitions like the Maccabiah Games in Israel. And while for a teenager it sounded like a reasonable distraction or a way to get out of school earlier than usual, Alex was building confidence in young Jews in the aftermath of a difficult period in our people’s history.
We look around and see how much times have changed. But then all one need do is take another look and we can quickly come to the realization that things have not changed all that much after all. In a complicated way, things are definitely different, but then it looks like much of the ostracizing and persecution of Jews is playing over again.
And that’s why Dr. Sternberg believes so strongly and definitively that it is time to teach self-defense to a new generation. “Martial arts, specifically karate, strengthen kids physically,” he says. “This is especially true with the rising tide of anti-Semitism around the world.”
Alex Sternberg arrived in the U.S. from Hungary as a teenager. He lived with his family in Williamsburg, where he attended Yeshiva Torah V’Daas. Emerging from Europe, where large portions of his parents’ family were murdered by the Nazis, Alex was determined to do whatever possible to make sure that it could never happen again.
When talking to Alex, you can sense his no-nonsense approach to personal as well as national Jewish self-defense. And how can anyone disagree with these ideas and methods?
A few decades ago, it seemed to pedestrian observers that attending classes on karate instruction from Alex or anyone else was more or less about beating people up. But back then, our understanding of what martial-arts training can do for a young person’s psyche and overall attitude was sorely underdeveloped.
Jill Roth, a Far Rockaway resident who is also a teacher, has been studying karate with Alex and expounds on its many benefits. “I recently had a mini-stroke. The karate helps my memory in many aspects of my life. Though I’m not an exercise nut, studying with Alex has been a pleasure. He brings his extensive background and vast knowledge, teaching the significance of each movement, which helps to do the movement more accurately.”
So now it seems that with all these years of reflection upon the matter, the ability to defend oneself in a fight may just be a secondary benefit of all the intensive training. The prime value of learning karate is not using that ability to defend oneself but actually having the potential to do so. To that end, Dr. Sternberg will, after the yamim tovim, be affiliated with HAFTR, the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway, training students at the school and preparing them for competitions like the Maccabiah Games.
“HAFTR has decided to assemble and train a competitive karate team that will compete on a number of levels,” Alex said. Students from around the area will be allowed to enroll in classes and receive instruction from Alex on all levels. For details and enrollment information, Alex Sternberg can be reached at 516-647-3225.
Alex and his wife, Ilyse, a local attorney and former gold-medalist at the JKA World Karate Championships and multiple medal winner at the Maccabiah Games, reside in Woodmere with their children. I met Alex—although the name was etched into my memory long ago—when he was active in a movement that was seeking to prevent a medical center from purchasing and moving into a former school facility near his home. The effort was ultimately successful and the medical facility moved elsewhere.
Inevitably—as two people of about the same age and veterans of the early years of the yeshiva system in New York—when we met, we compared notes and talked about personalities we once knew but possibly have not seen in decades.
Our schmooze turned to the early years of the Jewish Defense League in New York and Rabbi Meir Kahane in his pure and well-meaning days before he was vilified by the Israeli government and eventually branded as a racist. Kahane was murdered by an Arab terrorist in New York in 1990. One of the pithy Kahane slogans that he so efficiently developed was “A Jewish head, with a Jewish fist.” Kahane was big at the time, so he may have influenced Sternberg to a point. But Sternberg was already teaching karate at the Williamsburg YMHA when Kahane recruited him to teach self-defense in the Jewish community. Regardless, all these years later, this is what Alex Sternberg seems committed to imparting to the next generation. That is, knowing who you are as Jews, being inspired by Torah and our sages, and at the same time, if the situation calls for it, knowing how to defend yourself with confidence and strength.
Alex Sternberg knows how to build character and turn boys into young men and girls into young women. He says that he does not like what he sees in too many of our school-age teens these days. He says there is too much entitlement out there and, as a result, too many kids are just not ready to take on life and the challenges that present themselves along the way. He said he likes to see kids learn how to engage others and get knocked down and fall as they learn. “Kids need to be given an opportunity to fall and fail; that’s how they become strong and independent.”
Dr. Alex Sternberg is not just a martial-arts master but a motivational figure ready, willing, and quite able to make an important contribution to a young generation that just might need exactly what he has to offer. More information about the new HAFTR program and the invitation to non-HAFTR students to join and be trained by Alex will be available and reported upon in these pages in the coming weeks. v
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By Larry Gordon