History was made last Sunday at the Owings Mills Jewish Community Center when two martial arts students tested and achieved their black belts in karate.
After more than a decade of study, practice and hard work, Nadav Korman, 18, and Andy Sokal, 23, completed the final stage of their testing Sunday morning with friends and family looking on.
“It was the greatest experience,” said Korman.
“It was really awesome and unique,” added Sokal.
Both men began their journey to the black belt level around age 10. For Korman, it was a way to learn how to defend himself against school bullies and get active. For Sokal, it was a way to learn life skills that could help him cope with his autism.
Korman’s parents signed him up at the age of 8 after trying unsuccessfully to get him involved in other sports and to combat lower school bullying, which got so bad that he suffered a broken back after being shoved down some stairs. Through it all, karate offered Korman an outlet and a group of friends he could rely on.
“I’m really proud of it,” he said of being able to teach young students.
Their teacher, Jennifer Lake, head instructor at the Comprehensive Survival Arts (CSA) Martial Arts and Wellness School at the JCC, couldn’t think of a time when she had been more proud of any of her students.
“It was really emotional for me,” she said of watching the pair complete the final part of their test last weekend. “It was the culmination of years of hard work.”
That work involved getting to the karate studio at about 6:45 every morning to work out until students arrived for lessons, which they taught. After classes were over for the day, the pair would put in another half hour of practice before heading home. They also incorporated running, tai chi, kickboxing and other training into their own workouts to improve their strength and stamina.
For Lake and CSA, it was the first time in six years that the program gave out a black belt. For the younger kids in the classes, Korman and Sokal are an inspiration, she said. But while the final test showed off both men’s mastery of the physical skills involved in karate, they said the accompanying mental and emotional benefits of years of karate were, in some ways, even more gratifying than the ability to precisely execute each move.
At the end of this month, Korman will leave Baltimore for yeshiva in Beit Shmesh, where he knows no one. As part of his schooling, he must give back to the community in some way, so he plans to teach karate to underprivileged children. Though he’ll have to start over in a new place, the ability to spend a portion of his time in a familiar setting doing what he loves makes him more confident.
For Sokal, the nest stage involves swapping his sweats for business attire, as he begins to search for a job in the computer science industry. He completed his bachelor’s degree at Towson University in the spring and said karate has given him the confidence to approach the workforce head-on. Because of karate, he said, he no longer fears public speaking, and he has the self-assuredness he needs to approach job interviews with confidence.
“[Having a black belt] is a good thing to put on a resume; it shows that you have discipline and you can work hard whenever they ask you to,” he said, adding that a few stripes on the new black belt might also look nice.