They call him Rambowitz

Black-hatted black belt fights crime with his fists (and feet)

By Tom Tugend, January 30, 2014

It is not traditionally considered wise to pick a fight with an Orthodox rabbi over scriptural interpretations. But these days it is just as inadvisable to get into a physical altercation with a bearded black hat.

Cases in point are two American rabbis, both Orthodox, who are currently in the news for their sinews, rather than their sermons.

In the Queens borough of New York City, Sensei (a Japanese title meaning “master teacher”) Rabbi Gary Moskowitz is passing on his karate skills to his students, who dub themselves “The Savage Skullcaps”.

Newspapers have conferred the sobriquet of “Rambowitz” on the 56-year old rabbi — a seventh-degree black belt — mainly in tribute to his early years as a tough New York street cop.

“One day I got a call that a big muscular guy was rampaging in Times Square and 15 policemen couldn’t subdue him,” Rabbi Moskowitz said. “I went over and took him down in 10 seconds.”

He learned the importance of self-defence early on growing up as one of the few Jewish boys in a rough section of the Bronx inhabited mainly by African-American and Hispanic kids.

“I wore a yarmulke, so I was an obvious target,” Rabbi Moskowitz recalled. “Once a bunch of them dragged me up six flights of stairs to the roof top and dangled me over the ledge.”

At 14, he went to a summer camp run by the militant Jewish Defence League and at the end “graduated” by doing 400 push-ups.

In recent months, New York has been plagued by “knock-out” gangs who surround a passerby and try to knock him out with one punch.

In response, Rabbi Moskowitz has started a class for some 300 Jews, aged from four to 80, teaching them karate, jiu jitsu and tai chi (which Mr Moskowitz has Hebraized to “chai” chi) at his “Wellness” Synagogue.

He draws his inspiration from the Hebrew Bible, which he considers the blueprint for healthy living through eating kosher food, resting on the Sabbath and keeping clean through immersion in the mikveh.

Even prayer can lead to physical health. “Have you ever attended a service at a black church,” he asks. “The worshippers are constantly in motion, waving their arms moving their legs.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, a 22-year-old Chabad rabbi is being hailed as a rising MMA star. The acronym stands for Mixed Martial Arts, a full-contact combat sport which allows both hitting and grappling and supposedly originated in ancient Greece.

Rabbi Yossi Eilfort is on the staff of Chabad of La Costa, located between Los Angeles and San Diego, and had his first match two weeks ago.

Fighting under the nom de guerre of “The Rabbi”, he won by a technical knockout in the second round.

Rabbi Eilfort studied Krav Maga, invented by the IDF, for 12 years and took up MMA only six months ago.

He sounded almost apologetic after his victory, confessing: “I was very uncomfortable hitting someone. I actually held back. Before taking up MMA, I had never hit anyone.”

Like his fellow rabbi in New York, Eilfort is passing on his skills to the next generation. “Teaching Jewish youngsters self-defence and the importance of self-defence within the Jewish community are the main reasons I took up this training,” Rabbi Eilfort told the JC.

Last updated: 9:59am, February 4 2014