The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • ALAN ROSENBAUM

From sem­i­nary stu­dent to home re­pair spe­cial­ist, from toy en­tre­pre­neur to women’s self-de­fense ex­pert, Yu­dit Sidik­man has played many parts since her ar­rival in Is­rael 34 years ago. She has ex­pe­ri­enced trauma and tragedy, as well as suc­cess and ac­claim. Sidik­man re­counts her story with an emo­tional mix­ture of laugh­ter, tears, hu­mor and self-dep­re­ca­tion.

Her fa­ther, pres­i­dent of the lo­cal Re­form sy­n­a­gogue in New Bruns­wick, New Jersey, was ac­tive in the Jewish Fed­er­a­tion, and wanted her to have a Jewish ed­u­ca­tion. Sidik­man at­tended He­brew school as part of her reg­u­lar sched­ule. She speaks with great re­gard for the ed­u­ca­tion that she re­ceived. “One of the most pro­found things that I was taught was ‘don’t dis­miss a mitzva un­til you learn about it and de­cide if it works for you in your life.’ The en­cour­age­ment to make that type of anal­y­sis made me ob­ser­vant,” she says.

In 1980, Sidik­man vis­ited Is­rael for the first time, as part of a Re­form youth move­ment pro­gram. She spent six months in Is­rael, from July through De­cem­ber. Even though her host fam­ily did not speak English – “we played pass the dic­tio­nary,” she quips – Sidik­man felt con­nected to the com­mu­nity. “My body went back to Amer­ica,” she says, “but my heart stayed here.”

All, how­ever, was not well. Sidik­man ex­plains that the trip was an es­cape from a ter­ri­ble sit­u­a­tion. She had been sex­u­ally abused by the can­tor in her sy­n­a­gogue. No one knew, and she did not have the tools to deal with the sit­u­a­tion. She re­turned to New Jersey and then back to Is­rael for a short kib­butz trip af­ter high school and then once again came back to the US.

Sidik­man re­turned to spend a year and a half at the Uni­ver­sity of Mas­sachusetts, which she says was pri­mar­ily a cy­cle of “drugs, sex and rock and roll, and all of the in­ap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­ior, and then [wist­fully] Chabad. And then more drugs, sex and rock and roll, and bar fights – and then Chabad.” She con­cluded that she had to make a mon­u­men­tal, healthy de­ci­sion to get her life back on track. In Au­gust 1984, at the age of 20, she got on a plane to Is­rael “and never looked back. I came to Is­rael to es­cape re­ally, re­ally bad choices.”

Sidik­man made her way to Neve Yerusha­layim, the oldest and largest col­lege for Jewish women in the world, which was founded to ed­u­cate ba’alot teshuva (fe­male re­turnees to Or­tho­dox Ju­daism). She stud­ied there for a year and a half, be­fore mar­ry­ing in 1986. “If you are suc­cess­ful at Neve,” she jokes, “you come out with a ke­tuba [mar­riage con­tract]. That’s the only piece of pa­per that mat­ters.”

Most stu­dents at Neve Yerusha­layim sup­port them­selves and their fam­i­lies by clean­ing house or babysit­ting, she ex­plains. Sidik­man had a unique tal­ent for fix­ing and re­pair­ing things, and word spread quickly that there was a young woman study­ing at Neve who “could fix any­thing.”

“I solved the haredi women’s prob­lem of not want­ing strange men in their house when their hus­bands weren’t home,” she says. “I had work left, right and cen­ter. The worst thing was hav­ing to fix a piece of fur­ni­ture af­ter their hus­band had al­ready tried. I’d have to re­move the three thou­sand nails and screws that he had put in, and a lit­tle glue would work a lot bet­ter.” Sidik­man ex­plains that her tal­ent for re­pair­ing stems from one qual­ity: “I’m good at ask­ing ques­tions.”

She even­tu­ally branched out, and be­gan teach­ing

a car­pen­try class to young boys in Ma’alot Dafna, which led to the cre­ation of an or­ga­ni­za­tion she headed that em­ployed dis­abled haredi young adults to cre­ate wooden toys.

Sidik­man, her hus­band and their five chil­dren moved from Ma’alot Dafna to the Jewish Quar­ter, where they lived for six years. It was af­ter Passover in 1992, when her life took a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion. One of her neigh­bors, who had stud­ied judo as a teen, wanted to get back into shape. She ap­proached Sidik­man, and asked her to at­tend a judo class with her. Within six months, Sidik­man was the only stu­dent left in the course. Re­call­ing her first judo lessons, she ex­plains, “For the first time, my body said, ‘I get this.’ I could feel that I was good at it.”

Her mar­riage had be­gun to un­ravel, and her judo was the one thing that she could con­trol. By then, they were liv­ing in Efrat, and six months af­ter they had set­tled there, Sidik­man asked her hus­band for a di­vorce.

Af­ter her di­vorce, she be­gan teach­ing judo at the lo­cal Efrat com­mu­nity cen­ter. She taught a girls’ class, and soon, a class for boys was added. Even­tu­ally, she opened her own mar­tial arts cen­ter in Gush Etzion, which lasted for five years.

In 2003, Sidik­man founded El Halev (To the Heart), a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cated to em­pow­er­ing vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tions through mar­tial arts and self-de­fense train­ing. “Mar­tial arts were de­signed by men for how men fight men,” she ex­plains. El Halev teaches em­pow­er­ment self-de­fense to women, with the largest num­ber of paid fe­male mar­tial arts spe­cial­ists in the world. Sidik­man ex­plains that in Is­rael, one in ev­ery five chil­dren are sex­u­ally as­saulted be­fore the age of 14. El Halev builds pro­grams tai­lored for all ages, be­gin­ning with chil­dren ages five and up. The oldest par­tic­i­pant, she says, re­ceived her black belt at age 79. El Halev pro­vides train­ing to 250 women per week.

Yu­dit Sidik­man has over­come her life’s chal­lenges with judo (she holds a 4th-de­gree black belt), self­de­fense and em­pow­er­ment. “There are dif­fer­ent types of art,” she says. “Some peo­ple buy a clean white can­vas, add beau­ti­ful colors and lov­ingly and painstak­ingly ap­ply paint, and some art is cre­ated by a tak­ing a lump of steel, throw­ing it in the fur­nace, and bang­ing it into some­thing that is just as beau­ti­ful. Even though my life is less like the can­vas,” she chuck­les. Though she doesn’t fin­ish the sen­tence, the mean­ing is clear. ■

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