The idea for a women-centered martial arts organization was conceived by two women who shared the belief that all women should be given the tools to stand up for themselves from a place of empowerment. Yudit Sidikman and Jill Shames were passionate martial artists in the US and saw a growing demand for this and other self-defense practices for women in Israel. In 2003, El Halev — To the Heart — was born, and it has since become a leading movement in addressing issues of violence against women.

However, women are not the only ones El Halev seeks to empower. Yudit and Jill have made it a priority to reach out to individuals in vulnerable sectors of society such as children, the elderly and those with physical and/or mental disabilities.

El Halev hosts a wide variety of martial arts courses, from Kung Fu to Krav Maga, Karate, Judo, Capoeira and Chi-Kong. They also frequently organize specialized workshops for personal-safety and self-defense training. One of the most intensive, and internationally recognized programs they operate is IMPACT. Originally developed in the US, IMPACT is a unique method of self-defense that is now practiced around the world. El Halev is the only organization in Israel qualified to teach it.

El Halev teaches Martial Arts and Self Defense classes for women in Jerusalem (courtesy)

El Halev teaches Martial Arts and Self Defense classes for women in Jerusalem (courtesy)

The classes are thrilling, and demand a hundred percent emotional and physical effort from students. Imagine a large man, decked in American football gear, attacking participants in simulated exercises. Fear often paralyzes victims at the exact moment of assault, and the course utilizes these intimidating simulations to train students’ instinctual reactions. On Tuesday evenings, you will see a small group of women learning how to throw their knees, elbows and fists into the attacker’s weak areas. Over and over again, they’re instructor encourages them to yell the word “NO!”

No! I do not want this.

No! This is my body, and these are my boundaries.

No! You cannot do this to me, or anybody else.

Me’ah Achshav!” (“100 now” emergency phone line)

Dovrat Cohen completed IMPACT just days before taking a solo-trip to India. “It gave me much more than I anticipated,” she said, “I was confronted with old fears and traumatic memories, but in a way that made me realize how much stronger I am now, and most importantly, I felt confident in trusting my inner judgments and intuition.”

By learning to own their physical techniques and verbal assertiveness, the course nourishes student’s confidence from deep within. “Knowledge is power,” Michal Shapiro told me while reflecting on her IMPACT experience in Efrat, “and power is knowing how far you can push yourself even when a situation is not comfortable.”

The invaluable lessons taught in El Halev’s padded halls have expanded to all corners of Israeli society. In 2011, the organization received from the Jerusalem Foundations to conduct self-defense courses at community centers around East Jerusalem. The “Emissaries of Strength” Project reached hundreds of women and girls from neighborhoods such as Wadi Joz and Issawiya who learned not only basic self-defense, but were also given tools to become leaders in their communities for violence prevention. Programs have also been creating community leaders among National Service participants, IDF soldiers and students from religious seminaries and public schools nationwide.

Women who take classes at El Halev build confidence and self-defense skills (courtesy)

Women who take classes at El Halev build confidence and self-defense skills (courtesy)

As men and women around the world rally on November 25th to recognize the UNiTE campaign to Eliminate Violence Against Women. For one ambitious organization in Jerusalem, it will be a day to celebrate the making of hundreds of empowered emissaries in Israel, and to celebrate the social change they are fearlessly pursuing.