I was born Philip Jacobs, although I was better known as “Flip Jacobs” in the predominantly Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood where I grew up. But in 1967 – when I was 11 – we moved to South Royalton, Vermont, a hamlet with a population of only 900, where we were the only Jews in town. There was an undercurrent of anti-Semitism brewing there, and I got a bitter taste of it when I started school.
The school administration could not prevent the beatings I was routinely subjected to on and off school property, and it became painfully clear that I had to learn to defend myself. So my parents signed me up for karate classes with a South Korean master. From the beginning, I trained intensely – five hours a day, every day of the week. I got my black belt at age 18, and won many regional tournaments including the 1976 YMCA East Coast Black Belt Heavy Weight title. I spent my high school and college years training and competing in karate with the plan to eventually fight in the Olympics.
While I was attending the University of Vermont, I met Rabbi Shmuel Hecht, the Chabad emissary there, who immediately invited me to his house for Shabbos dinner and repeated that invitation every week. He called me Fishel, which nobody called me before. He would say, “Fishel, the Rebbetzin made great food for you, she made chicken wings for you…” How could I refuse? After a while, he also invited me to the synagogue on Saturday morning. So I started going there as well.
I graduated college in 1979 when, with Rabbi Hecht’s encouragement, I enrolled in the Hadar HaTorah yeshivah in Crown Heights. Of course, being so close to Chabad Headquarters, I saw the Rebbe every day when he came to pray Minchah. And I made of point of standing near him. I recall the Rebbe looking at me – straight into my eyes – and I believe that he must have been reading my soul. (more…)