Full Circle

In Circle of Strength on December 24, 2009 at 16:20

Netanela and her daughter Rut. Smiles and laughter our one of our most cherished memories from this trip.

Salaam and Shalom from Israel – my third trip here this year, first with our Aiki Extensions Middle East Aikido Project (MAP), then playing golf in the 18th Maccabiah (international Jewish Olympics) and more MAP work – and now with a group of great women martial arts instructors who have come from the US, Canada and Germany for the “Bat Mitzvah” celebration of El HaLev, the Israel Women’s Martial Arts Federation 12th anniversary.

So many thanks to Yudit Sidikman, the founder and director of El HaLev, for her total dedication to empowering women and girls, and for putting together this most unique and wonderful celebration trip. Yudit, Jill Shames and I remember so clearly when we first met at Special Training in the US in 1995 and talked about forming an Israel Women’s Martial Arts Federation. How fun its been to think back on the very first one-day “mini-Special Training” we did in Jerusalem in 1997, that launched what they have built and grown into today’s truly phenomenal El HaLev center and organization in Israel.

This is my only blog post from these very full 10 days here, as we’ve been so busy living it all and everyone else has so eloquently been describing their experiences on their first trip in this crazy incredible holy land. We’ve gone on never enough sleep but more laughs, punches, stretches, kiais, hugs, historical sites, spiritual vibrations, complex contradictions, middle eastern spices and tastes, soul-stirring trainings and people and new memories-every-moment to keep a girl going for a very good long time!

This “Maagal Otzmah” / Circle of Strength trip has had so many highlights each day. I’ve had the added personal pleasures of many circles in my life completing themselves and spiraling (aiki-style!) to next new places. Here’s an attempt to convey some of these highlights:

Most of the group and some of the Ethiopian women we worked with and taught self defense.

  • Meeting up with NWMAF colleagues and friends to train and tour in Israel, after dreaming of being in this Land together for so long. Stopping several times each day just to take in the reality and wonder of it all.
  • Doing Chi Qong and BLISS Fitness exercises outdoors in the Cardo inside the Old City walls. Hearing our breath echo in the ancient stones. Feeling each woman’s spirit resonate in her own way amid the immediacy of the biblical sites and stories where we were standing and moving.

    Missing friends and family was something we all did on this trip.

  • Finding the perfect Chanuka gift for my parents: a print of Chasidic Jews swinging golf clubs titled “Next Year in Augusta”! Buying one for myself too (1 for $39 / 2 for $50 … such a deal!)

    If it weren't for the El Halev staff none of this would have been possible.

  • December 9th at El HaLev at the 12th anniversary Circle of Strength celebration day: Soaking in the energy of dozens of women exploring self-defense and martial arts in all kinds of classes for 10 straight hours. Sharing discoveries, realizations, empowering encounters and pure joy and fun. Culminating with “1000 Punches” led in creative sets of 100 by different senseis until everyone there was high and dancing in great circles of strength and joy!
  • Soaking afterwards into the wee hours in El HaLev’s jacuzzi (enjoying the sauna and massage rooms too…). Pictures not suitable for publication 😉
  • Spreading out the next day to different locations around Jerusalem and the Tel Aviv area to work with women in prison and shelters, troubled teens, kids and young adults at risk, wheelchair-bound men and women, people with mental and emotional disabilities. Feeling the power of every individual to raise their voice and their hands to mark their own boundaries, claim and defend their inherent rights to safety and respect, and to support one another in the process of self-empowerment. Watching all the expressions of amazement and joy with each achievement made by every participant. And being blown away over and over again by the strong spirit, joy and capability pouring out of people living within such heavy histories and difficult circumstances.

    It was such an amazing time to be in Israel beginning Chanuka and Shabbat at Yudit's house and ending Chanuka for one us (Jill Heaton) in the Judean Desert along the Dead Sea.

    Prayer book of a monk singing in the Church of the Holy Seplicur.

  • Tripping through 36 powerful hours from Friday morning to Saturday evening: from the Holocaust Memorial at Yad VaShem in Jerusalem to the marketplace in Machane Yehuda … to sundown at the Western Wall packed with people welcoming the Sabbath and Chanuka as well … to the most wonderful home-cooked Shabbat dinner and singing Hebrew songs and melodies at Yudit’s house (~400 years old)  in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City (~3000 years old)… Then early next morning heading to East Jerusalem to catch a local Palestinian bus to Bethlehem, going through military checkpoints and the old city market till we arrived to Manger Square… Seeing maps and hearing about the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza from my Jewish friend Deborah who does Aikido and works for an independent Palestinian media agency in Bethlehem… Broadening perspectives and deepening understanding of the conflict (often called “the situation”) in this tiny intense land so sorely in need of peaceful co-existence for everyone living here… Going down into the bowels of the Church of the Nativity to touch the star-stone where Christ was born and see the manger where he lay… Getting stopped at the border back into Israel and sent back to find a taxi and walk through the “cattle-herd” of the Rachel checkpoint, oddly empty on this cold windy Saturday afternoon… Seeing graffiti of peace cries and Buddhist symbols drawn on the Separation Wall so painfully dividing Israeli and Palestinian territory… Meeting back up with our Jewish tour guide in the Old City to walk the Via de la Rosa and Stations of the Cross, then go through the dark mystical spaces inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to see where Jesus’ body was cleaned and laid to rest and where he rose from the dead … Being treated to the incense and prayers of young Christian monks as they came chanting through the Church … then taking off into the lively narrow market streets to go on our long-awaited shopping sprees!!

    Mmmmmmmm olives!

    We spent a lot of time watching the country side fly by from the bus as we toured all over Israel.

  • Riding the bus north and then south for the next five days of touring and training. Winding the roads along the Jordan River valley up into the Golan Heights, to work out overlooking the gorgeous views of the Sea of Galilee and agricultural plains below. Feeling floods of memories and good feelings as I spent 6 months doing volunteer farming in this area after the Yom Kippur War and always come back to visit. Then co-teaching a super-fun round-robin class, with a group of wonderful boys at a moshav right next to where I used to live, and just generally feeling amazed to return to this place to do martial arts with El HaLev and my longtime NWMAF friends.

    Gaby in the mist!

  • Enjoying the upper Galilee and Golan though disappointed to get so fogged in on the day with the grandest views, and to have our trainings with the Israeli Trauma Center and then with Arab women and girls in Nazareth cancelled for reasons beyond our control. But happy to have made it to special evening aikido and judo trainings, and to think that this just means everyone will have to return here again …

    Despite the mist and fog, we trained in doors anyway-inside the Coffee Shop in the Clouds. Laura is about to take that knife away from Jill and cut her into a million little pieces.

  • Journeying south to meet Danny Hakim and Budo For Peace colleagues who hosted a very special joint event in our honor at a Bedouin village near Beer Sheva. Seeing high-quality demonstrations by the young Bedouin karate students in their village peace dojo, then sharing demos of our arts of judo, jiu- jitsu, arnis, karate and aikido. Learning about one another, about the Budo For Peace and Middle East Aikido Project efforts to build bridges of hope and friendship between Arabs and Jews through training together. And beginning to take time to consider what doing “martial arts for peace” and being a “martial arts for peace dojo” might look like and mean for us as women instructors in our own dojos and teaching.

    The whole 10 days was a family affair, with all of us getting in on babysitting responsibilities. Someone forgot to tell Laura that you shouldn't hold a baby like a sack of potatoes, though it appears the little one didn't mind.

  • Enjoying late night laughs and pizza in Beer Sheva, then morning self-defense classes with challenging but totally delightful groups of young women at local community centers designed to keep them off the streets and involved in positive educational programs. Whether arriving late or starting out shy or reticent, these young women came on strong, had a ton of fun and new learning, and all left wanting more. As did each of us instructors!!
  • Finishing our journey in perfect style with: 1) a refreshing and hilarious dip in the super-salty Dead Sea, the lowest spot on earth 2) climbing Masada at daybreak to see the breathtaking mountainous desert views and archaeological sites up top and hear the story of the siege in 70AD when the Jews sacrificed themselves rather than fall under Roman rule 3) doing our last trainings atop Masada (another full circle for me, having first done the climb when I was 17 and now doing aikido up there!) 4) coming down the mountain to ride camels and experience Bedouin hospitality at lunch in a big tent in a virtual desert sand storm 5) going to old Jaffa to see the streets and port and do last-minute shopping 6) having our closing dinner at Na Lagaat (“Please Touch”), a center for deaf and blind people who run a fabulous restaurant and who served our most delicious healthy final meal.

As much as we all liked seeing the sights and history over these 10 days, I feel quite sure that everyone most enjoyed our time with every woman, man, girl and boy that we had the opportunity to meet and work with. Embodiment and empowerment training is just so needed, so important and so life-changing. And the capacity to defend oneself, while at the same time seeking new means to end abuse of every kind and peacefully resolve conflict, goes directly to the heart of what matters in making life in this region and the world over work for everyone.

Again I’d like to say thank you to Yudit, Jill and all the volunteers and staff of El HaLev for their ongoing work, and making this anniversary trip possible. As is said in Hebrew: “Kal ha-kavod, mazel tov v’toda raba”: All due respects, congratulations and many thanks to you! “Ad me-ah v’esrim”: Until 120 years may El HaLev live and be healthy and prosperous (and why stop then?!?).

To all my dear friends who journeyed to Israel, and who continue to travel this martial arts path as peaceful “woman warriors” – thanks for being there, and coming here these past 10 days, and keeping on doing it and going through it all together. And to my family, thanks for supporting me to take this time away and make this trip.

Happy New Year to everyone. May 2010 see more peace, joy, health, abundance and love flower in the Middle East and all over the planet!

Jamie Sensei


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