He may be the most dangerous Jew in New York.
Steve Isaak, a New York City probation officer who teaches a unique style of jujitsu, has developed a following among the city's observant Jews. Many find his art of self-defense so effective that they train with him for years after they've mastered the basics.
"I've been studying with him for four years, and my family keeps asking, 'When does this end? When do you graduate?' I tell them, 'Never,'" said Goldie, a 25-year-old Orthodox Jew who didn't want her last name used.
The 5-foot graduate student is part of a group of observant women who study with Isaak once a week in a Brooklyn synagogue. Goldie and the other women say they want to be able to defend themselves and their families in what they see as an increasingly dangerous world. They feel that Isaak's classes are conducted in a way that is respectful of Orthodox values.
(The women often wear pants under their skirts if particular techniques are likely to put them in a compromising position.) Although the male teacher physically touches his female students during class, such contact is minimal. For teacher and students, the
Halachic (religious) dictates of saving one's own life and the lives of others outweighs the rules against the mixing of the sexes.
In choosing to study with Isaak, the women have essentially said that in their eyes he
has the status of a rabbi or doctor.
Isaak calls his art shima jujitsu and insists that it enables even the unathletic to cope with physical confrontations.
"The art is based on efficiency," he explained.
Newcomers often assume that shima jujitsu is based on distraction, but according to Isaak, what it does, rather, is take advantage of the time a mind takes to process thoughts. During that time the practitioner initiates moves that defuse an attack and bring the assailant under control.
Shima is the Japanese word for "little island" and Isaak is fond of pointing out that it is close to the Hebrew word shema and to his own Hebrew name, Simcha. The majority of Isaak's students are Orthodox Jews but the 57-year-old sensei, or master, is not observant. He does have a strong Jewish identity and a fervent belief in self-defense. Not surprising, given that his grandparents perished in Auschwitz and his father survived Dachau.
"I think he feels much more rested at the end of the day, knowing that he helped another Jew learn how to defend himself," said Jimmy Schinazi, a beefy 21-year-old nursing student who has studied with Isaak for several years.
Schinazi occasionally regales his jujitsu class with accounts of physical confrontations or near confrontations at work or in social settings.
"I'm often at the wrong place at the wrong time," he said with a shrug.
The same could be said for Steve Isaak when he was 12 years old. After two older kids beat him on a Manhattan subway platform, Isaak started studying martial arts. By the time he was in college he was teaching self-defense. Eventually he ran his own school on Long Island. At the request of one of his students, Isaak started working as a bouncer. He developed the ability to walk unruly patrons off the premises, often with original jujitsu techniques he developed.
As Isaak approached middle age, he went to work for the New York City Department of Probation, serving for close to 10 years in its Field Services Unit, an armed squad that arrests probation violators.
He's now a member of the department's Special Offender Unit, which supervises pedophiles, gang members and other serious offenders.
Over the years Isaak developed a following among cops, prosecutors, judges and other law enforcement types on Long Island.
Ralph Zanchelli, who spent 18 years as an undercover detective in Suffolk County, studied jujitsu for five years with Isaak.
"I used it throughout my career," the now retired detective said.
Zanchelli arranged for a shima jujitsu demonstration at the Suffolk County Police Academy, in which Isaak reportedly took an unloaded pistol out of the hand of an officer before the cop could pull the trigger. Several of the police bigwigs present were said to be flabbergasted. Among them was Richard Dormer, a deputy police inspector at the time. In an internal police memo, Dormer described Isaak's techniques as "absolutely controlling." He's now the police commissioner of Suffolk County. Dormer said that Isaak's self-defense techniques are "a terrific asset for law enforcement.
I think he has something very important to offer police officers on the street."
Suffolk County legislator Allan Binder, who studied with Isaak as a teenager, is another believer.
"What he teaches can save lives," the Sabbath-observant lawmaker said
. "There's no question in my mind."
At Binder's urging, Isaak recently demonstrated his techniques for Long Island Congressman Steve Israel. Binder also tried to bring Isaak to the attention of someone he describes as "pretty high up" at the Washington's Transportation Security Administration, but he couldn't get "to first base."
"I think Steve's art would be perfect for flight attendants," Binder said.
An earlier effort to have Isaak share his skills with the Secret Service was similarly frustrated. A Secret Service agent who trained with Isaak had made arrangements for him to appear at the training academy in Beltsville, Md, where agents train, but the invitation was later rescinded.
A dozen or so of Isaak's students have either served in the Israel Defense Forces or are currently doing so. Among them is 34-year-old Avi Elias, who studied with Isaak for 10 years in New York before making aliya. He now teaches shima jujitsu in Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem to college students, women, IDF reservists and soldiers in a "unique combat unit" with which he volunteers. Elias arranged for Isaak to do a demonstration for security personnel at El-Al in 2002 and is hoping to get the IDF interested in him.
Before he can retire, Isaak has to put in five more years with the probation department. He'd then like to continue teaching shima jujitsu to Jews and people in law enforcement.
"G-d gave me this talent," Isaak said. "I want to share it with others, because this is
something I believe in."