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Paying Tribute to a Karate King and Torah Legend

Harvey Sober Celebrates 50 Years as Teacher of Jewish Studies and Martial Arts at YU

Three narratives come together to form the 50-year teaching career of Harvey (Chaim) Sober in the James Striar School (JSS) at Yeshiva University.

On April 24, Sober, center, received an award for his teaching from Rabbi Menachem Penner (Max and Marion Grill Dean of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, left) and Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman (President, Yeshiva University).

The first narrative begins in the Bronx, when Sober was 12 years old. “I grew up in a very active but secular Jewish family,” he recalled, “but at the age of 12, after I celebrated my bar mitzvah in November 1957, I became very religious, very Orthodox. I don’t know why that happened; all I know is that it did.”

One day, he and his father went to Livingston, New Jersey, to attend the funeral services of a relative. “At the end of the shiva [mourning] visit, someone asked if anyone could daven mincha [lead afternoon prayers], and my father said, ‘Harvey’s religious, Harvey practices, Harvey can daven for us, he was just bar mitzvahed.’” Afterwards, Shelley Safire, principal of the Yeshiva University's Talmudical Academy (TA), which would later become known as the Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy/Yeshiva University High School for Boys, came over to Sober and complimented him on his performance. When he found out that Sober was not attending yeshiva anywhere and was planning to go to Bronx High School for Science the following year, he pitched Sober the idea that he should come to TA instead (the offer sweetened with some scholarship assistance). Sober agreed. “My parents thought this was a fad and that all this religious stuff would go away,” he said, but in September 1958, he entered the doors of TA.

The young sensei

The second narrative begins three weeks later. “I can’t tell you really how this happened, either, but I started doing Chinese martial arts in Chinatown. All I can say is that it was a natural desire on my part.” Along with his training, Sober also cleaned out the facilities, often staying on the Lower East Side for sabbath to be near the school at Canal and Mulberry streets. “In 1964 and 1965, I was Chinese grand champion for monkey and crane styles. Sixty matches undefeated, 59 within 30 seconds.” Sober also trained with the monks of the fabled Shaolin Monastery in China, a privilege granted, at that time, to very few outsiders.

Just to make life at bit more interesting, he started night classes in Hebrew studies at Hunter College in the Bronx (now known as Lehman College).

Sober also noticed that the neighborhood around TA was changing from “a peaceful neighborhood to a neighborhood with a lot of robberies and muggings,” one which included an assault on Johnny Halpert, a close friend of Sober’s and later the famed basketball coach at YU.

So, in 1965, while working full-time at the Chinatown studio and attending his classes, he also began teaching a martial arts class for YU students, who had asked him to prep them for self-defense. “Three times a week I rode my bicycle over from the Bronx, we went to Rubin Hall Room 613, we took all the furniture out of the room and put it in the hallway, and I taught class to five YU students.”

The class rapidly grew in popularity, and soon Sober needed more space to fit in the growing number of students. He convinced Henry Wittenberg, YU’s wrestling coach, to let him use the half of the gym his wrestlers weren’t using. They had a mutual connection: Pinky Sober, who was in the City College of New York Alumni Varsity Association Hall of Fame for track and field along with Wittenberg and happened to be the first cousin of Harvey Sober's father. (Pinky Sober, who later became a lawyer for the Amateur Athletic Union, was also an announcer for the Millrose Games, an annual indoor track and field held each February in New York City.)

“So, we started our karate club, and from that grew the Tora Dojo Martial Arts Association – a worldwide organization that had its birth in the gym at YU, and after 40 years of teaching has taught almost 20,000 Jews worldwide in a number of countries.” Shalom Auslander, in a chapter titled “Harvey the Sensei” from Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame, described Tora Dojo as an “exclusively Jewish martial arts school, a mixture of Japanese Shotokan karate until the black belt; tai chi; pa kwa; and White Crane kung-fu after that.”

Sober (center) marching with his students

While all of this is happening, the third narrative begins to form what Sober called the “perfect storm,” though, in this case, it was a perfect storm of success and not destruction.

“At this point, I was a well-known Chinese martial artist; Chinatown was ongoing and the YU karate club was ongoing (and before long, it would become an actual course for credit where I taught five sections). I was sitting in the beis midrash [study hall] two days a week studying Talmud. I was at Hunter College in the Bronx getting a master’s in modern Hebrew literature and teaching Hebrew literature at Hunter College at 68th Street. By the early 1970s, I would also be studying with Dr. Moshe Held, head of the Semitics department at Columbia University, where I was learning how to fit Babylonia and Akkad and Assyria into my literary and Talmudic studies.”

Sober teaching his young charges

In 1967, Sober got a call from Rabbi Moshe Besdin, founder of JSS, to fill in for a teacher taking a leave of absence. Besdin had heard how popular Sober’s Hunter College courses were as well as his connection to the martial arts class, and he asked Sober if he could teach a basic biblical Hebrew course two days a week. Sober agreed, and after a year, Besdin offered him a full-time position at the salary of $4,200 a year. “Who could say no to that?” he recalled with delight. “I thought, 'What am I going to do with all that money?' But I really said ‘yes’ because it was Rabbi Besdin who asked me. He was a simple man who was very inspirational, and to this day I feel great love for him.”

Here, the three narratives weave into the single thread of a respected teaching career in JSS married to the discipline of martial arts training through the Tora Dojo Martial Arts Association. To Sober, Torah and Tora Dojo are united by a commitment to action in the world. “The Torah is very loving,” he noted, “but also very martial as well. The word that joins them is ‘proactive’—the Torah doesn’t obey itself, and the match doesn’t fight itself. You have to be very proactive in both. All the ways of Torah are peace, and the goal of the martial arts is self-development and peace – it’s not the ‘beat ’em up stuff.’ ”

However, as he explained to Auslander, self-development and peace are not equivalent to passive acceptance of things as they are; after all, he began Tora Dojo because a group of his friends wanted to learn how to defend themselves. “The Jews are not known to fight,” Sober said, but if they were attacked, he wanted to make sure they knew how.

Sober crushing rock with his bare hands

On Tuesday, April 24, 2018, over 200 friends, family, students and colleagues feted Sober with a celebration of his 50 years year of teaching. In recognizing this achievement, Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, President of YU, recalled taking one of Sober’s karate classes when he was at YU. “I was not very good at it, but I listened closely to the stories and learned that the Jewish people could defend themselves and be a strong people. That was very important.” He called Sober a “wise hero” for his incredible legacy.

Sober also received encomia from Rabbi Yonason Shippel, current JSS director; Rabbi Benjamin Yudin, former director of JSS and instructor in Bible; Rabbi Reuven Fink, instructor in Bible; and Rabbi Benjamin Blech, professor of Talmud, who spoke about how everywhere he traveled, he met with one or more of “Sober’s boys,” and to a person they hailed their teacher for having been the guiding light in their lives. To honor Sober’s work, Vivian and Stan Bernstein made a very substantial gift to JSS in his name.

In thanking the participants for their warmth and affection, Sober remarked that when he was 12 and religious belief found him, “all I know is that it called me, and I answered the call.” That calling has defined his life and given him much joy and a strong sense of purpose.