Beloved and feared New Rochelle resident Professor Harvey (Chaim) Sober was honored for 50 years of teaching his unique combination of Jewish Studies and Martial Arts at Yeshiva University during a ceremony held at YU’s Washington Heights campus.
Sober actually arrived on campus 60 years ago as a student at Yeshiva University High School, better known as MTA. At the same time, he began studying Chinese martial arts in Chinatown. Professor Sober recalled, “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. He studied Hebrew at Hunter College in the Bronx, now known as Lehman College. At that time, he observed Washington Heights changing from “a peaceful neighborhood to a neighborhood with a lot of robberies and muggings.” One victim was his friend Johnny Halpert, who became YU’s longstanding basketball coach and Sober’s future New Rochelle neighbor.
Sober began teaching a martial arts class for YU students as a form of self-defense. From a class of five students in Room 613 of the Rubin Residence Hall, Professor Sober became the sensei of the Tora Dojo. Tora is Japanese for Tiger in addition to its other common Hebraic usage.
Sober stated, “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.”
Sober described the “perfect storm” that resulted in his career. “At this point, I was a well-known Chinese martial artist 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 getting a master’s in modern Hebrew literature and teaching at Hunter College. 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.”
In 1967, Rabbi Moshe Besdin, z”l, founder of YU’s James Striar School (JSS), asked him to fill in for a teacher taking a leave of absence. Besdin had heard of Sober’s Hunter College courses and he offered him a position teaching a part-time basic biblical Hebrew course two days a week. The following year, Besdin offered him a full-time position with a salary of $4,200 a year. Sober said, “Who could say no to that? 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.”
A 10th-degree black belt in karate, Sober views Torah and Tora Dojo as 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.’”
At the event, Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, president of YU, recalled taking one of Sober’s karate classes as a student. “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.
Praise for this unusual career was also offered by his home rabbi, YINR’s Rabbi Reuven Fink, who is a YU instructor of Bible. Frequent New Rochelle visitor Rabbi Benjamin Blech, a professor of Talmud and a well-traveled author, commented how he meets one or more of “Sober’s boys” almost everywhere he goes. In honor of Professor Sober’s work, New Rochelle community leaders Vivian and Stan Bernstein made a substantial gift to JSS in his name. Many former students reside in New Rochelle and recall his martial arts cheating policy demonstration at the start of each semester—one that has never needed to be enforced in half a century.
In thanking the attendees 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 my life and given me much joy and a strong sense of purpose.”
By Judy Berger