December 31, 2023
I hope for many of you, life is more normal than since the start of this decade. It seems, at least for me, that life is mostly back to Before Covid (BC) reality. We went to USAF Summer Camp and met with many old friends. NY Aikikai had their Christmas Seminar, and the mat was packed. The dojo membership is back at BC numbers.
Rachel and I are enjoying the holiday with friends and family up in Maine and many of my friends are doing the same this year (the family part, not the Maine part), many for the first time this BC. We had our neighbors for Christmas dinner (I served them dinner, not them for dinner) and it felt guiltfree. I am typing and the sun has yet to rise. I am sitting at the dining room table watching the fire in the woodstove burning some oak and white and gray birch crackling as it heats our home. A steaming cup of oolong tea sits by as I write this annual letter about the dojo from the past year.
We are Back. ASNJ is thriving. With over 150 members, the mat is usually full, we have new programs, new members and, yes, soon a disco ball and outdoor speakers. More on that later.
Here are some highlights from 2023 at the Aikido Schools of New Jersey.
● Meeting Mat. No, not Matt Dormser (who had an amazing shodan test at the NYA Christmas Seminar) but mat, the canvas. During Covid, we sprayed bleach after each class to kill any germs. It destroyed the canvas but kept the dojo safe when the Governor let us re-open in 2020. As the membership has grown, we finally had the financial wherewithal to replace the canvas (It is expensive.). With the help of many students, a lot of pizza and a few cases of beer, we are out with the old and in with the new. Paul Monague Sensei stopped by after his dojo’s morning class with a couple of students to help. We all celebrated the new mat with a class that I asked Paul Sensei to teach. Also, by the way, I bought a 16” disco ball for the next party. Why? Why not!
● A new look. When I wear a suit, people always comment that I “clean up well”. So does the dojo, we repainted the interior with a new color scheme. Many thanks to Tom, George, and Ulisses for the amazing efforts. We put up new pictures, redid the tokonoma, installed updated lights, cleaned up the ranking paddles and Frank is painting a new Aikido sign above the kamiza. The place looks new and fresh. We do clean up well.
● Turning 60. Yup, I passed the milestone with a huge surprise party planned by my wife, Rachel, at the dojo [Ed note: and Paul (Burt not Manogue), Derrell, Danny & Annie, Frank, and more!]. It was a ‘70s themed party with well over 150 people from old friends, relatives, dojo members, other dojo members, my employees, neighbors, college friends, and Austin, the manager of our favorite Indian restaurant who supplied much of the food. Could not imagine a better way to celebrate this event than at the dojo surrounded by people I love.
● We had many, many dojo parties. Too many to count (or at least to admit to having.) At our holiday party (one time we hang out just with ASNJ members. Not like seminars.), we barbecued, and people brought tons of food and beverages. Two new members I call A to Z brought homemade coquito (Puerto Rician egg nog) and helped a few people get blind drunk (an inside joke). We all hung outside for unusually warm December when I realized what was missing: music. We were playing traditional Christmas music inside but none outside. I called Javier and we bought an amplifier and speakers from an old high school friend, who also did the sound system in the Park Slope dojo. We will be prepared with music both inside and out for the Bruce Bookman Seminar on March 2 and 3, Join us! I hear there will be music.
● Starting a PTA. We have a large Kids’ program with many different classes (Teens, Kids, little kids, home school, Adaptive Aikido, bullying program, Junior Deshi) and opportunities for kids to learn and grow. Thanks to Frank, Danny, Derell and Paul, our kids’ programs are growing. Kids are only students so long as there is a parent involved. We are giving them the opportunity for them to be more involved. Watch my letters for more details.
● 28 kyu tests We only tested twice this last year, but we promoted 28 people for kyu tests and a few Yudansha.
● Two road trips to NY Aikikai. In the past, we have tried to take 2-3 trips a year with our teens (and adults) to take Yamada Sensei’s Saturday class for them to meet him and experience training with a direct student of O’Sensei. Since Yamada Sensei’s passing, we have continued the tradition of taking Steve Pimsler’s Saturday class. It was great to start this again and Steve was an amazing with the teens.
● Six kids’ tests. One of the highlights at the dojo for me was when I started sitting in for the kids’ tests, usually 20 plus kids. I just sit on a pillow for an hour and smile. They all are amazing aikidoka and cute, to boot. I have taken a more active role and that is a good thing. I invite each participant up and formally promote them one-on-one. If they raise a belt, I tie it on for the first time. We bow and I tell them something great about their test. I think the formality of this is important. Our focus is to make the Kids’ program its own thing and not just a junior version of our Adult program.
● Hosting the first Teen Movie Night since BC. Giving the opportunity to our Aikido leaders of tomorrow to enjoy the dojo as a place of their own. They picked the movie; we provided the Chinese food. The most remarkable part was getting the kids to decide what food to pick for the night. I listened to Cat Stevens as I worked in my office, chaperoning. The things I do….
● Hosting Steve Pimsler Sensei for a seminar. I remember seeing Steve at the 2022 Xmas seminar at NY Aikikai and called Hal on my way home to tell him we needed to invite him to ASNJ. Watching Steve’s primal force expressed through clean concise Aikido blew my mind. I was captivated by his spirit. He stared the class with an infectious smile that only grew during the day. The seminar was amazing.
● Hosting Penny Bernath Sensei for a seminar. This was quite the weekend. Penny showed up on Friday and Rachel had a book group, so I took Penny to dinner and hung out. I discovered what a remarkable person I had the pleasure of hosting at the dojo. The seminar was amazing, one of the highest energy days I can remember. We all went into the City for a NY Aikikai fundraising party when Sharon outed me at the GC for the project. A seminar and a gala event in the city. What a weekend with a new friend who is also kicka$$ on the mat.
● Spending Christmas and New Year again in Maine with my family. I know I am Jewish, but I still think of this as Christmas. It is great to have time with our boys knowing the dojo will be taken care of by Frank, Danny and Derrell. There is nothing more gratifying for me than cleaning the fallen trees and splitting firewood. If you want to get better sword cuts, split wood. We always have a huge pile if you want to try. I am also good with a chainsaw, but I cannot think of any Aikido application for a chain saw. I love the woods.
● Hal Lehrman Sensei returned to teach again healed from his knee replacement and teachi ng again at ASNJ. We are having a fundraising seminar for the NY Aikikai Capital Campaign on January 13 taught by Sharon Domingez, Jim Soviero, and of course, Hal Lehrman. Besides joining us for a good cause, this is your last chance to train with Lehrman Sensei before he gets his other knee replaced four days later and won’t have a leg to stand on. At least for a few months.
● Those countless hours hanging out in my office after class. We have an amazing group of students. You all are amazing. I cherish the many times sitting and getting to know so many of you. I am blessed for all the time we spend both on and off the mat.
● The Woman’s Group hosting the first Women’s Self Defense course, taught by women for women. Thanks to Annie, Vanessa, and Linda for spearheading this new program, we opened the dojo for a group of women who do not wish to train in Aikido but want to understand how to better defend themselves using principals of Aikido. We will be repeating the program a few times a year. [Ed note: I attended this since I fit the bill for Aikido-adjacent. This workshop was excellent, and I will attend all that I can. I am grateful for the class and was honored to see my Aiki-friends shine as teachers since I don’t take class to see them in that role These women are bad@ss. Seriously.]
● [Ed note: I want to thank Connie for creating and maintaining the burgeoning Yoga program. I take her class as often as I can. She is a wonderfully generous teacher with her time and expertise and honestly, I feel the difference when I haven’t been able to take class: Yoga really works. Thanks Connie (another ASNJ bad@ss)!]
● Welcoming D.J. and Natalie to our Junior Deshi program. This program is for our teen leaders who not only exemplify what an Aikido student is, they go above and beyond by being role models in kids’ classes, assist in kids’ tests, mentor, help with the little ones and also teach Kids’ classes. They are inspirational.
● Having our Veterans Day Celebration, once again run by the Colonel (Drew Burns). We want to honor those who served our Country that affords us all have the freedoms we as Americans so value. On Veterans Day, the ASNJ USA veterans teach the Adults Class.
● All those Sunday NYT crosswords with Rachel (In pen! Without Google! –well, maybe a little Google when needed). I cannot think back on my year without the many moments I spent with the love of my life. Not the big events, but all the small things. Now that we are empty nesters, the moments we have together are all that more valuable. [Ed note: …is someone cutting onions?]
● Teaching the Junior Deshi class once a month and listening to them groan as I tell dad jokes. They are amazingly talented kids. I love the program and it is a lot of work for Frank, Danny, and Derrell as it is like a successful college sports program: you lose kids every year and have to always be planning for the next group to take over. The greatest part of that program is seeing a Jr Deshi move on to college well-prepared from all the work they have done. They help make the world a better place.
● Tai Chi Chuan class keeps growing. I started this during Covid at the request of some student and it has grown into a separate program at the Dojo with a strong following. Olga has really blossomed to the point where she can substitute teach for me.
● Jeremy getting his own class to teach. Our youngest instructor and a product of our Junior Deshi program now teaches the Kids’ class on Thursdays. He will be going to college this year but we still have his little brother.
● Learning ASL every week with my wife, Rachel. We went to Salt Lake City this past year and met all our ASL teachers. It was amazing to only sign for three hours at the party they threw for us. I also took an Aikido class in Utah. The class only had an instructor who had a hand in a cast and one 5th kyu student. The best part, no one knew who I was. I had a great hour and a half working out. I love Aikido. It was a good sign.
● Having the opportunity to write seventeen newsletters this year and watching the readership grow. I have slowed down writing these and, I apologize, and I am always amazed at seminars I meet people who come up to me and thank me for the letters.
● Saying Goodbye to our Sensei. I do not have the words to express the sadness with the passing of Yamada Sensei. I think we all can feel a hole in our heart and the world of Aikido. I would rather express my joy at having the opportunity to have been a student of his, having been thrown by him, seeing his face when we brought our teens for our regular ‘road trip’ to NYC to take Sensei’s class. I remember placing his picture on the Kamaza along with O’Sensei and Rick Stickles. I wish him well every time I bow in to teach class. God rest your soul, Sensei. We miss you.
I am sure I am missing a few memories, but I send out enough emails if you want just go re-read them and let me know if I missed anything important.
I am still honored for the opportunity to be your Sensei. You make my life better. I want to thank Hal for being my partner in this adventure as well as the special relationship we have. I don’t think there would be a letter without our conversations every day.
I want to thank all the instructors for making this possible. I work 60 hours a week and am at the Dojo 5 days a week. I teach 3-4 times a week and like to be on the mat a couple of times besides that. We have almost 40 hours of classes. I cannot do this without great instructors. Without you, there is no ‘A’ in ASNJ.
Frank, Danny, Derrell, and Paul help in too many ways to mention. All the countless hours from spending Saturdays at the dojo to helping make everything happen.
I want to thank Yamada Sensei for making this possible. Without his foresight and leadership, there would be no USAF and ASNJ. To all the other Senseis out there that support us, that give us strength, the community that adds to the ever-increasing Aikido world and knowledge. To being there to train with and help us all grow as Aikidoka.
I must thank Rachel, my wife, for putting up with all the time I spend at the dojo and having to listen to my stories at dinner.
And most importantly, to you, the students, who are ASNJ. Without you, it’s just four walls and a mat. Granted, very beautiful four walls and mat now, but an empty heart without you.
I am still sitting at the dining room table waiting for the 20 or so turkeys to feast on the seeds fallen from the bird feeders. If I am in luck, a deer might pass by to taste the salt lick we left out. The fire is going, the house is warm, the ground covered in snow here in Maine.
Hope you had happy holidays and a great new year. Looking forward to spending 2024 with you, in letters, at ASNJ, at seminars, and sitting in my office chatting. Let’s see what the world brings us. Thank you and God bless you all.
“May you be happy
May you be well May you be peaceful and at ease May you be filled with loving kindness And compassion for all beings.”
- Morihei Ueshiba, the Founder of Aikido