Master Jennie Rosenblum, fourth-degree black belt in the Pakua martial art, is on a mission. Seventeen years after she started training, she has realized her dream of opening up Pakua of Flatbush, a school of her own, and instilling in her students the self-confidence and focus that Pakua has given her.
On Sunday, February 9, she and her colleague and partner, Master Raizy Grossberger, presented many of their students with new belts or with stripes for their current belts. This was the first belt ceremony since the school opened in November 2013, and she was proud. “It went very well,” she said. “The kids were so excited to get their new belts. They finished the ceremony off by breaking boards, and left with a real sense of achievement.”
Pakua of Flatbush, located on the corner of Quentin and Nostrand Avenues, is a joint venture with Master Grossberger. Known affectionately as Master Jennie and Master Raizy, the women offer separate classes for women, boys and girls, aided by other female masters in the area. They also give classes taught by male instructors for men and teenage boys. On occasion, the school is visited by itinerant or traveling masters from other parts of the country, such as Master Elizabeth Filletti or Master Liz, a sixth-degree black belt from California.
Master Jennie is not new to teaching; she’s been doing it for 15 years. Pakua of Flatbush is her first Pakua school outside of her home, and a step up from giving classes in her basement.
On a Monday morning, I sat across from Master Jennie, at a small table by the doorway of her school. I was impressed by the simplicity and tastefulness of the dÃ©cor. A clean, white mat occupies most of the floor and the Pakua flag, with its red, white and black stripes, hangs on the other side of the room, at the front of the mat. The wide picture windows and doorway are shaded, giving privacy to the students. At the back, by the windows, observers — parents or students arriving early — can sit at a small bench, which doubles as a storage container for various martial arts equipment. On the window ledge, a small bubbling water fountain provides a soothing background melody.
That morning, Master Jennie had just finished teaching an hour-long class, but did not seem tired at all. She explained eagerly that Pakua is more than just a martial art; it’s a system that includes both physical and philosophical aspects, and involves multiple disciplines, such as tai chi, reflexology and sintonia (Chinese yoga). The school teaches all of these disciplines. Bootcamp, one of Master Jennie’s innovations, is a weight loss workout utilizing moves from the martial art.
“Pakua is a very holistic study,” she asserted. “It involves both the mind and body… What you get from the school will depend on what you’re looking for. Some people need an outlet and some need self-defense; others want stress relief, a good workout, or me time. Whatever they get should be interesting and challenging, instead of the mundane.”
This brought me to the question I’d been longing to ask since we started: What brought an Orthodox Jewish girl into Pakua?
“It Kept Me Grounded”
Master Jennie laughed. “I was 13 years old. I thought it was so cool. My older sister was taking it for about a month and I wanted to do whatever my big sister did.”
Though her older sister stopped, Jennie stuck with Pakua because she saw that the classes helped her. “I was the type of kid who had boundless energy…I always needed to move. In high school, I realized how much it helped me with my stress,” she said. She saw that Pakua eased her anxiety and helped her release excess energy. “Throughout my teenage years, it kept me on a good path. It kept me grounded and focused.”
When she first started, in 1997, Jennie trained at Universal Martial Arts, the first Pakua school in Brooklyn. She and her sister helped form the first all-women’s class. Jennie’s dedication to the art followed her to Israel, where she would practice techniques on the roof of her seminary and was soon joined by several of her classmates. Later on, when she was working in the Information Technology field, she would teach classes on the side, two to three times a week.
What started as a hobby became a career choice in 2010, when Master Jennie’s son was born. When her son was two months old, she resumed teaching Pakua and broadened her scope, adding in kids’ classes. When her maternity leave was ending, she realized that hiring a babysitter and going back to work full time in IT didn’t make sense economically. She welcomed the change. “I used to count the hours [in the IT office] until the work was done. It was a good job, but I had no job satisfaction…I was teaching more and more, and I loved that I would be home with my son.” Pakua was her passion.
Hurdles on the Road: Being Frum and Becoming a Pakua Master
The road to mastery was not always smooth for a frum woman. At the time, there were no improvement classes for women. These highly-focused sessions are requirements for the grey belt level and above; without them, one cannot advance in the Pakua system. Master Jennie had to attend mixed improvement classes, which she paid for with her own babysitting money. She took red, blue and black belt seminars with male instructors.
When the late Grand Master Rogelio M. Giordano picked a few masters to teach improvement classes in New York, Master Jennie was among them. While she didn’t specifically teach only women, Master Jennie was the first in New York to start all women’s improvement classes. “Once I got third degree, I was able to teach the seminar for red belt and black belt.”
Today things are vastly different for the Orthodox woman in Pakua. There are many more female masters and instructors in the system, and separate improvement classes are a reality. Master Jennie expressed her gratitude to Pakua International, which occasionally sends Master Liz to train the female students at a higher level. She performs evaluations and teaches special classes and seminars, which brings good energy to the school.
“There’s no compromise here,” Master Jennie said. “She’s a sixth-degree master and we love her to come and teach us.”
The wheel has come full circle, and the sacrifices Master Jennie made are no longer necessary. I asked Master Jennie how she felt about these changes.
“When I first started with Pakua, you could count the number of female masters on one hand. Now we have many instructors and black belts that can all move within the international system, completely within a female-only environment. My dream has become a reality, and I’m ecstatic.”