“Special Needs” is a vague term. At El HaLev, We classify it as anyone who struggles with an on-going emotional, mental or physical challenge that impairs their ability to live a regular life. In Israel, individuals with special needs have a fair amount of benefits and opportunities offered to them. Nefesh b’Nefesh for instance, offers a growing variety of resources and special services to new olim. There are subsidies on housing, special needs job resources, socialized medical benefits, and an abundance of non-profit services. Additionally, Israeli culture champions in community support, resulting in resources like parent-funded after-school programing for special needs children in cities around the country.
However, much of the special needs attention has been funneled into medical care and education. While these resources are absolutely necessary, there are other methods of attending to special needs that provide a supportive and therapeutic environment. For over 20 years, Tamar Ascher has been teaching courses in early childhood and in special education . She has a Ph.D in Teacher Training and works as a teacher trainer in one of Jerusalem’s Colleges for Education. Her alternative career as Shotokan Karate instructor, initially had nothing to do with her day job. She started teaching martial arts at El HaLev in 2003 when the Jerusalem-based non profit was just beginning.
Although a martial art, Tamar does not teach Karate as a physical self-defense practice. “I’m not teaching warfare, and I’m not teaching how to fight,” she says. The Karate that Tamar teaches serves as a self-defense practice learned from dedicating oneself to patience and centering. She describes it as a “life meditation”. Each movement and exercise cultivates balance of mind and body. Connection is key.
Tamar is exceedingly kind and modest, and does not admit to teaching special needs martial arts, though if you ask her students, there’s no denying the uniqueness of her class. One such student, Yaffa, began studying Karate eight years ago with Tamar. At the time, she was struggling with severe PTSD symptoms after surviving a terror attack in 2003. Her struggles were preventing her from living a normal life, so she tried to ignore them and pray for a miracle that would make them disappear. So Yaffa came to El HaLev to learn self-defense, and what she found through martial arts was far more rewarding. Yaffa described how previously it had been difficult to stand her ground in the face of fear and difficulty, “I learned to confront my fears instead of trying to run away from them, and started seeking therapy help. The Karate aided my ability to be patient and to work slowly, step by step, which eventually helped my success in therapy and returning to my happy self again.” Karate requires patience and discipline, and in the most loving and accepting way, Tamar eased her student, Yaffa, into an entirely different mentality. In Karate class, Yaffa learned how to stand her physical ground, and thus how to stand her mental ground when PTSD kicked in. It takes time to face such daunting difficulties. “They’re not going to get rid of their struggles in on day of work.” Tamar says of her students, “We have to go down very deep, which is scary, so we take our time.”
Through class exercises, Tamar teaches her students to not only connect with themselves, on a physical and spiritual level, but how to connect with the other students and their surrounding environment. The connection and awareness experienced in Karate class, which Yaffa also claims to be an essential part of her healing, is her model for self-defense. When students walk out into the world with confidence, it shows on their bodies, and they are less likely to be targeted in assault or harassment. Tamar’s inclusive class environment creates an atmosphere of compassion and responsibility among her students. In Shotokan Karate, the tradition is to mix levels in the dojo (school), so that patience, acceptance and growth can be nourished. Tamar makes sure that “everybody learns from everybody”, so although her class is not specifically a “special needs class”, the welcoming acceptance she creates allows for all students to learn together.
As a whole, El HaLev functions on the value of inclusion, and since it’s founding, has made it a priority to work with people with special needs to exemplify that. With professionals like Tamar Ascher, their programs rear successful results over and over again. Everyone, no matter what their ability or limitations are, have the right to learn how to defend themselves and go forward in life with confidence; this is one of the top “principles of faith” at El HaLev. The organization wants to see all who walk out the door, feel stronger and safer. For students with special needs, their successes in class are a light of inspiration, and the acceptance they’re given is a source of empowerment.
To learn more about classes and workshops at El HaLev, visit their website.
*principles of faith is a religious Jewish reference