10 Cheshvan 5782 / Saturday, October 16, 2021 | Torah Reading: Lech Lecha
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Bringing Home the Gold    

Bringing Home the Gold

Here's the amazing story of Sunny Levi, petite Orthodox Jewish mother of 5 who is a 6th degree black belt Tae Kwon Do Master and former Pan Am champion and Olympic hopeful…


People are often surprised to learn that I am an observant Jew, a mother of 5, and a 6th degree black belt Tae Kwon Do Master. They wonder how this seemingly contradictory lifestyle is possible and how it came to be. They say things like, “You mean to tell me, that lady in the martial arts expo is an Orthodox Jew? I feel bad for her husband.” Or, “Say what?! That mom driving Yeshiva carpool is a Tae Kwon Do champion? Is this even kosher? How can it be?”  


It all started when my mother signed up my younger brother, Gabe, who was 5 at the time, for Tae Kwon Do lessons. She didn’t exactly know what Tae Kwon Do was, but she saw the words “discipline and focus” in the class description and was sold.


The discipline they rolled out, however, was a bit too intense for Gabe. And at some point between the forced pushups and having to answer “yes sir” and “no sir” to the instructors, little Gabey burst into tears.  He ran out of room straight into my mother's arms, vowing never to return to that scary place.


My mom, who already paid for the whole session, recognized that the class was indeed above Gabe’s maturity level and respectfully asked the teacher for a refund, since after all, her son didn’t even make it through one class and was adamant about never going back.


“Sorry, Ma'am” said the instructor, “there are no refunds. Best we can do is transfer the credit. Do you happen to have another child who might be interested?”


Another child? How about 5 others! My mom came home that evening and asked the rest of us kids who would be willing to take Gabe’s spot in the class. When none of my siblings volunteered I piped up with an “I guess I’ll do it.”


“Great,” responded my mom, “You start next week.”


I was 8 years old when I went to my first Tae Kwon Do lesson, and I had no expectations other than to fill in for my brother. But from that first class, I fell in love and was instantly hooked. The very things that sent Gabe running out of the dojang were the exact things that sent me running back in.  I loved the discipline, the seriousness, the focus, and the order. I loved being pushed to exert my maximum strength and effort in order to meet the physical challenges placed upon me. I loved the feeling of empowerment I got from learning to defend myself. And I loved the outlet it provided me for dealing with the stresses of growing up with a severely disabled older brother. 


My Asian instructors, although small in size, were huge in achievement. No matter how many times I would watch them run up the walls, shatter cement with their bare fists and fight off multiple attackers at once, it never got old.  They taught us how to work hard, take pain and never give up. The seemingly impossible, they said, is possible so long as we don’t give up, and in my eyes, they were living proof that perseverance and dedication really paid off. These Korean men quickly became my role models, and I felt that if could be half as awesome a martial artist as any of them, I would be proud. 


So for the next 5 years, I trained hard and I earned my black belt by the age of 13. Now, maybe you’re thinking what some of the teenage boys were thinking when they heard about this. A girl black belt? C’mon! There’s no way she can actually fight. I’m gonna show everyone how fake her black belt is! Well…Let’s just say I had to prove myself to them a couple of times. Not that I ever went out looking for a fight, but some people left me no choice!


As I got older and increased my training, my teachers encouraged me to compete in tournaments. I started with small, local events, and worked my way up to State, Midwest, and National competitions. After competing in the Junior Olympics, I felt that I absolutely HAD to make it to the real Olympics. I set my mind toward it, focusing intently on achieving this goal. By the age of 19, as a 3rd degree black belt, I found a coach, a retired World Champion, who took me under his wing, confident that he could help me achieve my Olympic dream. The first step, he told me, was to win at the Pan Am Open—North America vs. South America. I was so excited for this first step; we got right to work.


So there I was as a college student, pursing my life dream and training 5 days a week with a top coach, hoping to make it to the Olympics. I had it all planned out, I thought, but Hashem apparently, had other plans for me. 


My wonderful, loving father was diagnosed with advanced cancer. This diagnosis came like a left hook out of nowhere and it rattled me to the core.  Witnessing his suffering broke my heart.  Sometimes I would come home after a particularly challenging practice, sick from overtraining, to find my dad in the bathroom, sick from a chemo treatment. With the raw reality of vulnerability hanging over his head, I began to think about my own death too. I started to question the purpose of life and my life goals in particular.


Could it really be that going to the Olympics was what my life was all about? Was this really the most important thing— the golden ring that all of my time and energy should be trained on achieving? I imagined my grave with a little inscription saying, “here lies an Olympic champion,” and the thought of it didn’t feel so fulfilling anymore.


With these thoughts swarming through my head, my daily training went from being a pleasure to an agony. I became disillusioned with my coach, and disgusted when he yelled at me to kick faster, as if his very life depended on the speed of my side kick! The still small voice inside me said I was wasting my time, enduring injuries and pushing my body past its limits for nothing. Life suddenly felt too short, too sacred, too important for this.


Certain that I wanted to switch gears, but not one to quit in the middle, I followed through with the Pan Am Open, taking first place in forms and third in sparring. When the competition was over I thanked my coach for all of his help and politely bowed out. He was disappointed with my decision and tried to convince me to reconsider, but my mind was made up. While I still loved the martial art, I wanted nothing more to do with competition at this level. I needed to spend time with my dad. I needed to spend time with myself. I needed to figure things out.


Over the next few months my father's condition improved to the point where he was living a normal healthy life again. While he was in remission I graduated college, got married, became certified as a personal fitness trainer and kickboxing instructor, had 2 kids, and moved to Israel. While living in Israel my husband learned Torah full-time in a Yeshiva, and I taught martial arts and exercise classes to women in my community. I was worried about my dad who was sick again, but other than that life was going great; we were strongly connecting to our Jewish roots, raising our family in the holy land, learning so much about what it means to be a Jew, and then one evening after the kids were sleeping the phone rang….


“Sunny,” came a faint but recognizable voice,“I want you to come home and say goodbye to me.”


Dad’s remission was over.


I got on the next possible flight to Chicago and went straight to the hospital. My father was connected to tubes and struggling to breath yet somehow had a sense of calm about him that was contagious. He comforted us with his words of faith and inspired us with his inner peace. In his final days he wrote us a letter, sharing some of his important thoughts and feelings. In that letter he wrote, "I am at peace with everything that is happening. I feel that the quality of my life outweighed the relatively short time in this world. It was a worthwhile tradeoff…so what is a high quality of life? My wonderful marriage to my beautiful and loving wife and soul mate….my 6 wonderful children…I count my blessings. And I say thank You G-d for all You have given me…so, what's a life? You leave behind a stack of tzedaka receipts, inspiring stories from friends and family, the people you may have influenced for the good over the years, and the good memories of what we did with our lives.” 


I took this letter back to Israel with me and continue to cherish it to this day. 


A few months after my father's passing we moved back to Chicago. I reconnected with my old Tae Kwon Do teachers, and started teaching Tae Kwon Do classes to women and children in the Jewish community. Coaching Jewish children has been an amazing growth experience for me. I have come to see Tae Kwon Do as a G-d given vehicle for strong character development, which is a necessary prerequisite for spiritual growth. The overlap of Tae Kwon Do goals and what Hashem wants from us is something I strive to impart to my students: we must practice self-control and humility, do everything with integrity, maintain an indomitable spirit, treat everyone and everything with respect, and be masters of perseverance. Getting closer to G-d and building emuna takes hard work and tenacity; in some ways it is like moving up in rank toward higher belt levels. It requires us to believe in our power, be dedicated to our goals, constantly improve ourselves, and keep our guard up at all times. In retrospect I can see that what I was originally drawn to in the martial arts as a young child had its source in the Torah, and that deep wellspring was what my soul was longing for. My hope is that my students will internalize these lessons and values and use them in all other realms of life.


As for my own advancement, with the help of G-d I have been able to teach and keep up with my practice throughout all 5 of my pregnancies, and train hard and test for higher levels of black belt in between pregnancies. I have learned that the only person worth competing against and being better than, is the person I was yesterday. I am now a 6th degree black belt and I hope to make it all the way up to the top one day- to 10th degree black belt!


People often ask me I have any regrets about giving up on my Olympic dream, and the answer is NO. Sure, my life isn’t as celebrated and high-profile as maybe it could have been had I kept going, but I feel that giving over the gift of self-empowerment, self-defense and self-esteem to the Jewish community is much more rewarding than giving the satisfaction of victory to myself. I’m grateful that G-d re-directed me onto this path and gave me the job of teaching martial arts and fitness to the next generation in a kosher way. Like my father taught me, inspiring and influencing others for the good is what it's all about. And for me, this is the real gold.

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