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Rabbi Behind Bars

Rachel Ginsberg

Karate champion, Talmudic scholar, prolific author, and prison chaplain are just some of Rabbi Fishel Jacobs’ qualifications. Whether it’s breaking 15 inches of solid brick with his hand, or sitting on the bunk bed of a murderer talking about repentance, Rabbi Jacobs sticks to his motto: “When you run out of places to find strength, look deeper within yourself.”

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Harold Jacobs — Jewish in his heart but not yet in practice — bought a poultry processing factory in Vermont and moved his family out to South Royalton (population 1,100) from Brooklyn when Flip/Philip/Fishel was ten. “Dad’s philosophy was, let the kids grow up in the country and they’ll be healthy.’ It would have been a good plan if I didn’t almost get myself killed in the process,” Rabbi Jacobs reminisces from his well-appointed study in Kfar Chabad, surrounded by an extensive library and piles of his own titles.

“It’s a classic hick town and we were the first Jews there. The parents didn’t mind that their children were beating up the new Jewish kid. It’s not a sophisticated Al Sharpton–like anti-Semitism over there, more like the Sunday preacher style. So I was getting beat up all the time — in the locker room, on the soccer field.”

One day during a visit from his New York relatives, Flip came home roughed up and bleeding. “Harold, Flippy’s gotta learn to take a bat to school,” said his uncle, offering a solution.

A few days later, a South Korean tenth-degree karate master named Tae Yun Kim advertised that she and her brother were opening up a karate school. Today she’s a multimillionaire living in California, but then she was a destitute immigrant fresh out of the mystical South Korean mountains. Flip Jacobs was her first student.

For the next thirteen years, Flip trained for hours every day. Karate became his life.

“I was her first student. Hours every night of pure Korean karate. They ran it like in the Orient, where every move is broken down into tiny increments that need to be perfected. It’s all based on repetition — punch, punch, punch, punch … ten thousand times the same move, each time trying to create more power, to bring up more power from your stomach, until you become super-focused.”

The goal, says Rabbi Jacobs today, was the dissemination of the Far East’s generations-old wisdom through grueling training and total discipline. At the time he thought he was just perfecting his technique. Today he knows that the intense discipline of micro-repetition is what made him into the scholar he is today.

“The masters constantly preached to us that this isn’t about self-defense or physical fitness, but about overall personal development. ‘If you can translate the sincerity, humility, and discipline gained through this training into everything you do, our goal will have been achieved. The essence of karate is succeeding in everything you do in life,’ the masters would tell us. At the time, I didn’t have an inkling to what degree those very powers would be necessary in the innumerable, unexpected twists and turns the future held for me.”

By the time Philip/Flip was 15, he began to move up belt levels and win competitions. When he was 18 he was awarded his black belt (“at the time it was the greatest day of my life”), which he describes as “a bloody mess” that involved smashing eight to twelve inches of pine with his hands, feet, and head, executing perfected moves and defending himself against five armed “assailants” who came after him with boards and clubs. He emerged with a broken nose and bleeding skull, but knew he had the inner power to pass the test.

“They brought in masters from Korea who couldn’t even speak English. These guys used to train their students by sending them off to the mountains for six months and letting them back once they’d mastered the techniques. That’s their religion — becoming elevated, confident, focused, synchronizing all the systems.

“There’s really no trick involved.” Rabbi Jacobs explains how even today, he can still break bricks and fight off assailants. “First, I free myself from all extraneous matters, creating an inner quiet. This requires anywhere from two minutes to a hundredth of a second. Then, and only then, I direct my total concentration to the act at hand. These two steps, creating an inner still and concentrated attention, are totally interdependent. Without the former the latter is impossible. With total mental and spiritual focus, I allow my deepest inner powers to emerge, emanating simultaneously from the brain and around the diaphragm. It is evoking this energy, which they call chi, for which the martial artists of the Orient are most famous. As soon as I sense this intangible, primal awakening of power flow, I instinctively know I’ll succeed. In fact, most people have no idea what their capabilities really are.”

Harold Jacobs — Jewish in his heart but not yet in practice — bought a poultry processing factory in Vermont and moved his family out to South Royalton (population 1,100) from Brooklyn when Flip/Philip/Fishel was ten. “Dad’s philosophy was, let the kids grow up in the country and they’ll be healthy.’ It would have been a good plan if I didn’t almost get myself killed in the process,” Rabbi Jacobs reminisces from his well-appointed study in Kfar Chabad, surrounded by an extensive library and piles of his own titles.

“It’s a classic hick town and we were the first Jews there. The parents didn’t mind that their children were beating up the new Jewish kid. It’s not a sophisticated Al Sharpton–like anti-Semitism over there, more like the Sunday preacher style. So I was getting beat up all the time — in the locker room, on the soccer field.”

One day during a visit from his New York relatives, Flip came home roughed up and bleeding. “Harold, Flippy’s gotta learn to take a bat to school,” said his uncle, offering a solution.

A few days later, a South Korean tenth-degree karate master named Tae Yun Kim advertised that she and her brother were opening up a karate school. Today she’s a multimillionaire living in California, but then she was a destitute immigrant fresh out of the mystical South Korean mountains. Flip Jacobs was her first student.

For the next thirteen years, Flip trained for hours every day. Karate became his life.

“I was her first student. Hours every night of pure Korean karate. They ran it like in the Orient, where every move is broken down into tiny increments that need to be perfected. It’s all based on repetition — punch, punch, punch, punch … ten thousand times the same move, each time trying to create more power, to bring up more power from your stomach, until you become super-focused.”

The goal, says Rabbi Jacobs today, was the dissemination of the Far East’s generations-old wisdom through grueling training and total discipline. At the time he thought he was just perfecting his technique. Today he knows that the intense discipline of micro-repetition is what made him into the scholar he is today.

“The masters constantly preached to us that this isn’t about self-defense or physical fitness, but about overall personal development. ‘If you can translate the sincerity, humility, and discipline gained through this training into everything you do, our goal will have been achieved. The essence of karate is succeeding in everything you do in life,’ the masters would tell us. At the time, I didn’t have an inkling to what degree those very powers would be necessary in the innumerable, unexpected twists and turns the future held for me.”

By the time Philip/Flip was 15, he began to move up belt levels and win competitions. When he was 18 he was awarded his black belt (“at the time it was the greatest day of my life”), which he describes as “a bloody mess” that involved smashing eight to twelve inches of pine with his hands, feet, and head, executing perfected moves and defending himself against five armed “assailants” who came after him with boards and clubs. He emerged with a broken nose and bleeding skull, but knew he had the inner power to pass the test.

“They brought in masters from Korea who couldn’t even speak English. These guys used to train their students by sending them off to the mountains for six months and letting them back once they’d mastered the techniques. That’s their religion — becoming elevated, confident, focused, synchronizing all the systems.

“There’s really no trick involved.” Rabbi Jacobs explains how even today, he can still break bricks and fight off assailants. “First, I free myself from all extraneous matters, creating an inner quiet. This requires anywhere from two minutes to a hundredth of a second. Then, and only then, I direct my total concentration to the act at hand. These two steps, creating an inner still and concentrated attention, are totally interdependent. Without the former the latter is impossible. With total mental and spiritual focus, I allow my deepest inner powers to emerge, emanating simultaneously from the brain and around the diaphragm. It is evoking this energy, which they call chi, for which the martial artists of the Orient are most famous. As soon as I sense this intangible, primal awakening of power flow, I instinctively know I’ll succeed. In fact, most people have no idea what their capabilities really are.”

 

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