How a Jewish karate champion stood up for her beliefs

Fourth-degree black belt refused to compete in the World Championship trials held on Rosh Hashana.

September 18, 2007 00:00
How a Jewish karate champion stood up for her beliefs

sara karate 224. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Sara Rivka Ernstoff is a top-ranked, fourth-degree black belt in karate in Israel. At 1.5 meters tall, Ernstoff might be small in size, but she is large in stature. Twenty-five Rosh Hashanas ago the Boston native, then known as Pam Glaser and the reigning United States women's national karate champion, was making headlines around the globe. The headlines were not only because she was the number one female in the country, but because she refused to compete in the US's World Championship trials that were being held on Rosh Hashana. That refusal would ultimately leave her out of the squad that went to the World Karate Championship in Taiwan. "Though I was not observant at the time, I felt a sense of Jewish pride and there was no way I would compete on the Jewish New Year no matter what," Ernstoff recently told The Jerusalem Post. Ernstoff began her karate career in 1974 while looking to fill up her physical education credits in college. "I went to a karate class to check out what was going on and had to leave in the middle," she said. "Not because I did not like it, but rather I wanted to be training already and could not bear the fact that I was on the sidelines. I came home that evening and I told my father that this is what I was going to do for the rest of my life." Specializing in kata, where the participant performs a predetermined set of movements, Ernstoff climbed the karate ranks in the US. In 1980 she took sixth place at the World Karate Championship in Madrid, Spain. She then won two gold medals at the 1982 National Championships. Ernstoff was a shoe-in for the team that would represent the US in Taiwan, or so she thought. "I still had to compete in the trials, so I took out my calendar and saw that they fell out on Rosh Hashana," she said. "I immediately called Jerry Thomson, the president of the Amateur Athletic Union Karate Committee, and said that he had to change the date." But Thomson would not budge. The Anti-Defamation League in Boston brokered a deal with Thomson that the AAU would meet after the tryouts and vote on a date to hold another one a couple of weeks later for Ernstoff. The two sides were content with the agreement. But after Rosh Hashana Thomson informed her that the AAU voted not to have another tryout. "That is when the American Jewish Congress became involved and a team of 35 lawyers were assembled, including Alan Dershowitz, to work on a lawsuit claiming that I was entitled to a tryout by the AAU," Ernstoff said. George Abrams tried the case on her behalf and Judge Rya Zobel of the United States District Court said the national team had to accept Ernstoff on the team and grant new tryouts. This was also the case for competitor Lea Sukenik, who also did not participate on Rosh Hashana. The tryouts were held in Taiwan prior to the World Championships since all the US judges were to be there as officials at the tournament. Paying her own way, Ernstoff flew to Taiwan with the whole team, but not a soul would talk to her. "I was really bothered that not one person associated with the team would speak to me because of the lawsuit," she said. "I had traveled, eaten and competed with them and suddenly I was left out in the cold. I wondered who my real friends were. On the other hand, there were 35 Jewish lawyers who took up my case for nothing in return. They did not know me but we all were of the same faith." At the tryouts, Ernstoff lost each round by a 10th of a point and did not make the team. In what she described as a, "choreographed exercise, the judges and scores were all subjective and the fact that each one of them was named in the lawsuit did not help my cause. I was blacklisted and my US karate career was nearing its end." In 1983 at the US National Championships, Ernstoff was told by Alex Sternberg, one of the US coaches and an observant Jew, that the AAU had just met and there was such deep hatred and resentment about her that there was no way her competitive career would continue. "Alex was trying to psyche me up, but instead I was so depressed that I had a poor showing and that would be the end of the story, or so I thought," she said. "After giving up my competitive side for religion, even though I did not have a deep connection to Judaism at the time, I thought it would behoove me to investigate what I gave it up for. "I always had a connection to Israel and the Jewish people, but it only started to blossom after the Rosh Hashana incident." One of the first Jewish experiences Ernstoff had was with her yarmulke-wearing karate coach Sternberg in the late 1970s. "One Friday night he invited all the Jewish participants to his hotel room for Kiddush," she said. "We asked him why he wore a yarmulke and he said, 'When I walk into a room, the first thing I want people to see is that I am Jewish and I am proud of being Jewish.' That was the first time I heard pride and Jewish in the same sentence. "At the 1980 World Championship I had a great interest in the Israeli team. It was then that I would meet my future sensei, Yehuda Pantanowitz, and it was because of this meeting that I would eventually make aliya. I wished I was on the Israeli side. "In 1982 I looked for the Israeli team everywhere, but they were not present. Why? Because Taiwan would not grant them visas. I thought that Israelis must be a very special people; look at what they are sacrificing for not only being Jewish but by living in the Land of Israel." In 1985 Ernstoff participated in the Maccabiah Games for the US, winning a silver and bronze medal. "I wanted to stay in Israel after the games, but it would take more than a decade to finally make it," she said. Between 1985 and 1996 Ernstoff became more involved with the Jewish world and taught karate in the Boston area where she touched many lives. "Ernstoff was a great coach and always offered terrific advice," said Shoshana Glickman, a karate student for 10 years. "She stood up for herself and was tough when she had to be. Sara Rivka was a major influence on my life." On making aliya in 1996, the now single mother of five and grandmother of one, was coached by Yehuda Pantanowitz until his death this year. In 2006, at the age of 49, Ernstoff competed in the IOGKF World Championships and came in second. "I presented the trophy to my coach, in what was one of the proudest moments of my life," she said. "It meant more than any of the medals I won for the United States. I was representing Israel and was able to fulfill my dream." Ernstoff currently teaches karate at El Halev Martial Arts Center for Women, a coed adult class at Chazon and instructs children in Nokdim, near her hometown of Tekoa in Judea. Ernstoff is a busy and active person, involved in the Greater Jerusalem Home School support group, ceramics and dating. "As Rosh Hashana approached I looked back to 1982 as part of my destiny," she said. "The incident allowed me to say that there is a difference between right and wrong, and I have the power to choose my own path. "The price was a heavy one that only an athlete could understand. But it taught me not to be blackmailed by my wants and desires. What is important is making choices and taking responsibility for them and not to be a victim."

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