Editor’s Note: He’s a Rabbi. He’s also a Sensei. Meet Gary Moskowitz below and learn how he teaches martial arts as a therapy for people who use wheelchairs in an unending quest to conquer pain, fear, and low self-confidence within the disability community.
A former New York City police officer, private investigator, teacher, principal, social worker, talk show host, and president of a Long Island Jewish community council, Gary holds a Seventh Degree Black Belt in both Juijitsu and Karate, a Second Degree Black Belt in both Judo and Oriental Weapons, and he is an instructor in Tai-Chi-Aki.
Rabbi-Sensei Gary Moskowitz Explains Martial Arts Therapy
When you say “martial arts”, many people think of a fighting combat discipline. But by participating in martial arts, people who use wheelchairs can improve their cardiovascular systems, flexibility, muscle strength, balance, coordination and dexterity – impacting their physical health positively and improving it. Martial arts therapy also helps create a positive emotional well-being and fights depression, and can be used as a tool to aid in pain and fear management.
We know from real life that individuals in wheelchairs very quickly learn that they can do things they’ve never thought they can do. For instance, we challenge them with stick fighting. When I put a stick in someone’s hands, he or she learns that he can defend and protect himself while in his wheelchair using a stick. Very quickly we can see improvement in extension and flexibility as well as in rotation in arms, hands, wrists and shoulders through using sticks.
In martial arts therapy, we teach people how to push themselves farther than they’ve ever thought they can go, and how to focus and concentrate to do things that they’ve previously considered impossible. Martial arts therapy teaches new and different ways of moving, especially in circular motions and in flexibility.
“The overall goal in martial arts is to have healthier, stronger, better bodies.”
The other thing you have to remember is that someone trying to hurt you can ruin your health. Knowing how to defend yourself and being able to get exercise and do things you’ve never thought you can do makes martial arts therapy a great program for people in wheelchairs and people with other types of physical problems.
I’m often asked, “What form of martial arts do you teach?” I’ve been participating in martial arts for 44 years. I have a seventh degree black belt in jiu–jitsu, a seventh degree black belt in karate and a black belt in judo and several other martial art forms. All forms of martial arts teach having a healthy body, a healthy mind, self confidence and the ability to defend yourself and other people. In martial arts, all the various forms basically teach the same skills but with different names.
Different forms of martial arts are branded by the way they’re taught. Learning martial arts is much like learning to speak English. The very basis of the English language is to know the 26 letters of the English alphabet. After you know those letters, you can put them together in words, sentences, paragraphs and stories. So, I adapt different forms of martial arts to meet specific needs of people with physical, mental and/or emotional challenges.
I have a law enforcement background and once was a New York City (NYC) policeman. I learned how to restrain people and manage people to keep them from hurting me, themselves or someone else. When I was on the street and had a confrontation, no one ever asked me what type of martial arts I would use to restrain a bad guy.
To be honest, the style of martial arts isn’t as important as the effectiveness of the martial arts – not only in restraining people but also in promoting good health. There are only so many ways to make a circle and so many ways to use force against force.
“One of the things we concentrate on in martial arts therapy is relieving pain.”
There are 78 million people in the United States today with some form of pain in their bodies, and that pain can be very debilitating. To relieve this pain, they probably take some form of pain medicine. I believe that having a healthy body alleviates some of that pain and helps us learn how to better manage any pain that we may have. Also, there are so many various ways that people in wheelchairs can move that they’ve never experienced before. With martial arts therapy, we teach them new fun and different ways to move.
I started learning martial arts when I was 14 years old and lived in the Bronx in NYC. Before that, I got beat up all the time. So, I had to learn to defend myself or die. I was training in karate 3 days per week and training in jiu–jitsu 2 to 3 days per week every day after school.
Once I learned to defend myself, I didn’t have as many fights, and I realized that martial arts also enabled me to live a much healthier lifestyle. Through martial arts, I also learned how to meditate and became empowered to do many things I never thought I could do.
I also learned how to empower others. Martial arts teach that once you become empowered, you have a responsibility to empower others. When I work with people with disabilities, I try to empower them to discover all the abilities they do have.
“I’ve found that many people who’ve been labeled as ‘disabled’ are very enabled in many other areas.”
For instance, we’re now in the process of teaching individuals in wheelchairs how to teach martial arts not only to people in wheelchairs but also to people who have no physical challenges. I believe that people in wheelchairs have unique abilities to look at various forms of martial arts in a different way and train people in martial arts.
Fox & Friends Interviewed Gary on Self-Defense Against Predators
Rabbi Sensei Gary Moskowitz Says Be Surprised at What You Can Do
I wanted to join the New York City Police Department (NYPD) to try and make some social justice changes. I thought as a police officer I would have a chance to make a difference in people’s lives. I was a police officer in the 1980s, a very violent time in NYC. At that time, each year 2,500 people were murdered and 100,000 people assaulted. Violence was everywhere.
By investigating these violent acts and treating people with respect, I discovered that I could make changes. Because of my background of being a teacher (I once taught high school history), the police department put me in schools to work with youth gangs in violence prevention.
My job was to try to talk people out of being violent and committing crimes. We wanted to turn around school children with a history of violence and help them become nonviolent. Back then, we thought if we could stop violence with school children and help them understand there was a better way of living their lives, then as they grew older, there wouldn’t be as many violent acts committed in the city. That philosophy proved to be true. Today, there’s only 1/7th the number of murders in NYC that there were in the 1980s.
In 1998, I was ordained as a Jewish rabbi. I’d always had a keen interest in religion. I found that chasing peace, justice and many of those things I believed in came from the Torah. Religion pushes us to be healthy, have a strong sense of justice, have a strong sense of kindness and chase wisdom. All of these ideas are taught in the practice of martial arts. After I began to understand martial arts, pursuing a religious path seemed natural as well.
I have a Bachelor of Arts in business and sociology. I went to school for social work and counseling to get a master’s degree, but didn’t finish my master’s degree, because I went to work for the NYPD and became a police officer. While I was a police officer, I went back to school and completed a law degree that made me eligible for the New York State Bar, but I haven’t taken it yet. I also have a master’s degree in education administration. I enjoy studying and learning.
“I believe that just like we do push-ups, sit-ups and other forms of exercise to strengthen our bodies and be healthy individuals, we need to continue to learn to have healthier brains.”
While I was working and going to college, I still continued to participate, learn and grow in martial arts and started teaching martial arts. I never stopped training.
Although martial arts therapy may not be able to restore someone’s ability to walk who has a T3 spinal cord injury, that therapy can change the way he or she looks at the world. In doing so, we can empower people to think about an injury or an illness in a different way. Instead of concentrating on what they can’t do, they often are surprised at all the things they can do.
Every year we attend the Abilities Expo (http://www.abilities.com) in Edison, New Jersey, in the NYC metropolitan area. We run a martial arts camp for free during the Expo. This year the Abilities Expo will take place May 1-3. We invite anyone to come.
As we raise more money for our program, we hope to be traveling to all the locations where the Abilities Expo is presented and holding free martial arts therapy camps at each location.
One of our beliefs is that God created men and women to be healthy. Yet we may hurt, damage or misuse our bodies – often through no faults of our own. But we still want to keep our bodies as healthy as possible. I believe that God gave us our bodies, and He expects us to keep them healthy.
“Your body can enable you to do great things, especially if you have some type of physical, emotional or mental challenges.”
We now have a program called virtual karate for people who are very sick and/or can’t have physical contact. However, they still can do virtual karate. We teach people in wheelchairs how to do judo, we teach them to grapple on mats in the gym, and we teach them how to throw people. They have a lot of fun as well as building their bodies.
Rabbi Sensei Gary Moskowitz’s Perspective on Wheelchairs and the Future
I had an injury that caused me to be disabled for a while. I was on crutches and then in a wheelchair. However, I never stopped training in martial arts. I learned how to adapt the martial arts to my own disabilities. If someone attacks you, you still have to be able to defend yourself, regardless of your ability or disability.
That’s what I still teach my students today. Even if they’re in wheelchairs, I teach them to become experts in martial arts from their wheelchairs.
I used to coach the NYC police karate team when I injured myself. I was also on the Maccabeans karate team, which is like a Jewish Olympics. I was working on the heavy bag in the gym and practicing a jump spinning flying kick, and I missed kicking the bag. I was kicking with a lot of force, and my knee popped, which caused me to have to have surgery on my knee. So, I walked with crutches for awhile due to the pain in my leg. Since I was in a wheelchair for a few days, I learned a little of what life could be like in a wheelchair even though I realize it’s not the same as being paralyzed. Then, I had to walk with the aid of a cane.
While injured, I saw someone attack someone else, and I went to try to help the individual being attacked. I limped toward the attacker and began to scream at him. When I got closer, he threw a punch at me. I blocked the punch with my cane, turned the cane over, lowered the cane to his ankle and swept his leg out from under him. I swung at him and stopped the cane within an inch of his face. Then, the police came and locked up the assailant.
I’ve also gained a great deal of knowledge of what life in a wheelchair is all about, because my daughter (my youngest child) uses a wheelchair. She has cognitive problems as well as physical problems and can’t push her wheelchair by herself. I’m honored to give back to the wheelchair community on her behalf.
We have a facility as a part of the Access Project (http://www.cidny.org/access-project.php) in Manhattan. We are now in the process of training individuals to use martial arts therapeutically, for self defense and for protection.
And I’m working on a screenplay for a movie where the main character will be an action character in a wheelchair (www.garymoskowitzfilms.com). I want to change the perception of people in wheelchairs. The community as a whole probably never considers that a man or a woman in a wheelchair has the ability to protect himself or actually take down assailants. If we can make an action hero movie, and the main character uses a wheelchair, we believe this project really will change the perception of what people in wheelchairs can do – offering a tremendous aid to the wheelchair community.
About Martial Arts Therapy
Martial Arts Therapy is currently affiliated and a project under La Verite Youth Services Inc., a New York State 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Martial Arts Therapy offers emotional and spiritual support to people and helps them to take an active role in their healing. Students are taught pain management, physical rehabilitation skills, and deep relaxation techniques. The program is combining several forms of martial arts, modern medicine, psychology, and religion. Visit http://www.martialartstherapy.org for details.
About the Author: John E. Phillips
For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites. He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at www.johninthewild.com.