Martial arts and the commandment of honoring one’s parents go hand in hand, according to Jacob Lunon. Lunon, who has been training and teaching for more than 40 years and holds a ninth-degree black belt in Shaolin White Dragon Kung Fu, is the founder and head instructor of Macabee Martial Arts, the only Orthodox Jewish martial arts program in the Western United States. The respect and discipline that accompany the study of martial arts, he said, is part of what makes it exciting and relevant to Jewish Seattleites.
“I like the focus martial arts gives me everywhere in everything I do,” said Macabee Martial Arts student Yoela Zimberoff, an 8th-grader at Seattle Hebrew Academy. “It gives me confidence.”
Macabee Martial Arts, located at the Torah Day School on South Edmunds Street in Seattle, provides children, teens and adults with classes that include Kung Fu, sports yoga, Commando Krav Maga — the Israeli army’s martial arts regimen — and self-defense.
Lunon is one of three certified Krav Maga instructors in Washington State. He believes martial arts are necessary in the Orthodox community.
“We needed an organized program for Jewish children, especially because of anti-Semitism,” Lunon said. “There’s lots of anti-Semitism in the world. We plan to do a seminar for every synagogue so that people feel safe and know what to do in a dangerous situation.”
Macabee Martial Arts was born in response to the Crown Heights riots in New York between that neighborhood’s black and Chassidic communities, and Lunon decided to tailor his martial-arts program to Jewish communities. There’s plenty to be afraid of in day-to-day life, he says.
“If you read the newspapers, you see synagogues being attacked, and people being attacked in movie theaters. The world is not safe anymore, and we can’t take a lot for granted. We have to start locking our doors, we have to start looking both ways,” he said. “This is the reality we live in.”
“A couple years ago, I witnessed on TV a girl being mugged downtown in the bus station with security guards standing there but doing nothing to help. It horrified me to think we have come to this point that as Americans and Seattleites we allow this to happen,” Lunon said. “As long as I’m here I’m going to do everything I can to see that doesn’t happen.”
Lunon began the program in 2004. Prior to that, he had an acting career in New York. Once he realized he wanted more meaning in his life, he shelved his acting, converted to Judaism, and came to Seattle.
Upon founding the school, Lunon gutted the traditional martial arts philosophy to encompass Torah. “I took all the Eastern philosophies and esoteric out of what we do and substituted it with Torah,” he said. “We teach one thing: Discipline, honor and respect.”
The program started in the basement of Bikur Cholim Machzikay Hadath before being tapped by Torah Day School. The program also works out of the Greenlake Elementary School and the Seattle Jewish Community School. Eighty percent of the student body is from the Orthodox community.
Lunon plans to expand the program.
“We want to do a city-wide…clinic to all synagogue congregants, members and door-greeters of what to do in case of a terrorist attack,” he said. “We want to put a program together for the entire city and make it available for every synagogue.”
Many of the younger students get hooked by watching their older siblings or parents become involved.
“My best friend started Kung Fu two years ago and she pressured me to join,” Zimberoff said. “I was like, ‘No, I don’t think I could do that.’ But my brother did it, and my cousin and uncle and then I was like, ‘That is so cool. I have to join.’”
Others participate for the mental discipline qualities martial arts provide.
“My son started doing afterschool programs in the North End,” said student Scott Adams. “He has ADHD and we wanted him to get focus and respect. I had done karate in high school and wanted to get back into it. We started in the North End but ended up coming down here and now we’re taking martial arts together.”
Adams also said that as a Catholic, the school is even more interesting to him.
“My son is getting exposure to a different culture and we both really like that,” he said.
Other students appreciate the strength-building aspect.
“There are some people in the world I don’t want to be beat up by,” said student Manuel Zimberoff, a sophomore at Northwest Yeshiva High School and Yoela’s brother. “It makes me strong. I don’t know where I’d be without it.”
“But we make it very clear that this is a reality-based school and we’re not going to fill you up with a lot of dreams,” Lunon said. “You will do pushups, you will do sit-ups, you will throw a thousand punches, you will be strong. We will make you strong.
“You start from wherever you are — it doesn’t matter what shape you’re in,” he said. “We’ll put you in the best shape of your life. We’ll teach you why you should be in the best shape at all times.”
Moreover, he added, “The stronger you are, the stronger the mitzvah.”