Judaism meets Jet Li at Douglas synagogue

Posted: Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Juneau's Jewish community got an unusual treat this week: kung fu straight from Seattle.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Two Orthodox Jewish leaders came to town to help lead this year's children's day camp at Temple Sukkat Shalom in Douglas. The twist was these men are from Macabee Martial Arts in Seattle, and they're here to show both kids and adults how the lessons of Judaism and martial arts intertwine.

Jacob Lunon, the founder and grand master of Macabee Martial Arts, and his student, Rabbi Mark Spiro of LivingJudaism, are giving daily lessons to the youths at Camp Chaverim. In the evenings, they're offering kung fu classes for community adults.

"We wanted to make a week of learning, inspiration, honoring mothers and fathers and elders. We're using kung fu to reinforce that," Spiro said.

Lunon explained that martial arts are designed to build character as much as self-defense, and this is directly in line with Judaic values.

"You learn to be a better person," he said.

He said that while you learn to block and kick, you're also learning about spirituality and respect.

Spiro added that teaching kung fu was also a chance to "take these lessons out of the classroom" so students can get a more hands-on exposure to the life lessons they teach.

Lunon said the idea for his Jewish-styled martial arts studio back home may sound like an unusual fit at first but really isn't. He said the whole idea behind kung fu is that they were taught to monks and religious people to help them seek inner peace.

"It's the same for Judaism," he said.

The novelty of bringing kung fu to the temple was not lost on its leaders.

"It's really so different than anything our kids have done in the past," said Rebecca Braun, a coordinator for the camp. "It's stretching our kids in a very positive way."

Mandy Schramm, president of Sukkat Shalom's board of directors, said the congregation has around 70 adults and 30 children. While this is a far cry from the Jewish crowds they're used to in Seattle, Lunon and Spiro see the size of Juneau's Jewish community as an advantage.

"Because they're so small, they take real responsibility for their community," Lunon said. "They're very enthusiastic about education, manners and spirituality."

"These are all things that tie into the teachings behind kung fu," he added.

"I think this is a wonderful community. For the small size they really pack a punch," said Spiro.

This was Spiro's first time in Juneau, and the rabbi explained how it came about.

He said his wife, Heather, is a personal stylist with clients from Juneau, including some from the temple's congregation. He said when one of those clients told her about Camp Chaverim, he got involved as a leader and suggested bringing in Lunon to give the week a kung fu theme.

Both men jumped at the chance to expose the community to something they felt was not common around the area.

"This is a rare opportunity for them," Spiro said.

Braun said guest leaders are the norm at Sukkat Shalom. She described it as "sort of a co-op," meaning there is no resident rabbi and so various others are frequently brought in to lead services and special events.

"We try to bring in outsiders to bring in new energy. This year we really got some special guests," she said.

The adult kung fu classes are open to the public. They run from 5 p.m. until 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday at Temple Sukkat Shalom.

While kung fu lessons are a daily staple for the week, the kids have engaged in other activities such as crafts, games, songs and hikes. Schramm said all of these have incorporated Jewish faith and values.

She said Camp Chaverim will culminate when the kids lead the Shabbat service at 6:30 p.m. Friday. She said a potluck supper will precede the service by an hour, and the public is invited.

Besides kung fu, Lunon also felt this week would also be a rare opportunity to bring his other venues to a new place. He performed a one-man show about the Civil Rights Movement at the Silverbow and conducted a relationship workshop.

Lunon said he's enjoyed his time in Juneau and hopes to bring his Civil Rights show back.

• Contact Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or jonathan.grass@juneauempire.com.

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