Young Taekwondo champion fights BDS

Emuna Samuels, 12, trains intensively and would like to go to the Olympics one day. Until then, she will fight for the state of Israel.

Emuna Samuels, the youngest Israeli with a black belt in Taekwondo (photo credit: Courtesy)
Emuna Samuels, the youngest Israeli with a black belt in Taekwondo
(photo credit: Courtesy)
At first glance Emuna Samuels, 12, seems like an unlikely fighter for Israel or anything else. Her hair pulled back in a pony tail, the seventh grader looks like what she is – a sweet Modern Orthodox seventh grader from the Jewish settlement of Efrat.
But she is also the youngest Israeli with a black belt in Taekwondo. She trains intensively and would like to go to the Olympics one day. Until then, she will fight for the state of Israel.
“I was in Spain for the European championships during Hanukka, and they put all of the flags (of the competitors’ countries) hanging from the ceiling,” she said in an interview. “I won the bronze medal, and when I went up on the podium I grabbed an Israeli flag from my bag and wrapped it around me. I felt very proud to represent Israel and to have the flag around me.”
At other tournaments, she said, she has been heckled with shouts of “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is Great in Arabic, also used by terrorists as a battle cry) or “Yalla Palestine” whenever she got up to compete. She says she tries to ignore the taunts.
Taikwondo is a Korean martial art that began in the 1940s. It is characterized by head-height kicks as well as jumping and spinning.
“It is a beautiful martial art that is not well known in Israel,” Emuna’s coach Tzion Cohen said. “It is like chess, but you have only a few seconds to react.”
As Emuna is religious, she does not compete on Shabbat. For example, in an upcoming tournament in Cyprus on Shabbat, she will stop competing once Shabbat begins. That means that even if she advances to the finals, she may not be able to participate. That does not seem to bother her.
“I like everything about Taekwondo, mostly the fighting and flying with the team to the competitions,” she said. “Someday I’d like to go to the Olympics.”
She started the sport at age 8, when she joined a twice-weekly group at the local community center in Efrat. Coach Cohen saw her potential and encouraged her to join the national team despite her young age.
“She has a very strong character and she never misses a training session,” he said. “She is smart, mature, and very talented. When she sets a goal, she achieves it.”
She trains almost every day except Shabbat.
“We do a warm-up, run practice moves for fights, practice kicks and techniques,” she said, describing her workout. “We do strength exercises, and for the last 20 minutes we do fighting.”
In the past year she’s been to competitions in Belgium, Holland, Croatia and Spain. She has to miss school for some of these competitions, but says the teachers have been supportive and help her make up what she misses in school.
Emuna gets a lot of her support from her parents. Her grandfather, Kalman Samuels is the founder of Shalva, an NGO that provides care for individuals with disabilities including many children with Down syndrome.
Her parents met at Shalva, when her mother Orit was doing National Service, and her father was working as a lawyer.
Her mother Orit is a hydrotherapist at Shalva and several other places, and supports her daughter all the way.
“She’s very determined and self-motivated,” Orit said. “I feel very proud. She’s found what she loves and I’m very proud of her achievements.”
She said that last year her daughter opted to skip the bat mitzvahs of several friends rather than miss training sessions. Orit said that she was especially proud when Emuna wrapped herself in the Israeli flag in Spain.
“That was a walking Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d’s name),” she said. “When I got that picture, it gave me the chills and I cried. With all of the antisemitism in the world, especially in Europe, she was holding a flag with pride.”
It is not an inexpensive hobby. The Samuels pay for most of the flights and hotels for competitions abroad, as well as equipment and training in Israel. She’d like to see Sports and Culture Minister Miri Regev offer more financial support. But Orit says that shelling out the money is worth it.
“I believe that every child should find what they like and should stick to it because that builds self-esteem,” she said. “The fact that she is such a young girl traveling the world and seeing so much is important. Today we see how teenagers sit on their phone and computer all day. I don’t want my kids to be couch potatoes.”
For now, both Emuna and Orit are looking towards the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles. But even if she doesn’t make it, she won’t stop doing Taekwondo.
“I wake up in the morning and it’s what I want to do the most,” she said. “I wait for it all day.”