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. ■