Her hair is purple, her belt is fourth-degree black and her heart is pure gold.

Not your typical chiseled 20-something fitness instructor, Yudit Sidikman is a chunky, funky Israeli grandma who exudes caring and confidence.

She estimates that since 2003, more than 70,000 women, children, seniors and people with special needs in Israel, Europe, North and Central America have learned to defend themselves using her tailored version of the evidence-based Empowerment Self-Defense (ESD) approach.

Now, Sidikman is reaching beyond her nonprofit El HaLev training centers across Israel. She is cultivating a new generation of ESD leaders abroad through ESD Global.

ISRAEL21c visited El HaLev’s Jerusalem headquarters ahead of “16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence,” an international campaign that runs from November 25 (International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women) to December 10 (Human Rights Day).

Sidikman told us that from age 12 to 18 she was sexually victimized by her guitar teacher, a clergyman. “I never called it ‘rape’ until I was the mother of a 12-year-old,” says Sidikman, a New Jersey native living in Israel for the past 35 years.

Yudit Sidikman holding a student’s baby during a class at El HaLev in Jerusalem. Photo by Abigail Klein Leichman

“In 1992, when I was a mother of four little kids living in the Old City [of Jerusalem], I got dragged into a judo class by a friend.” That class turned her life around.

“For the first time, I was able to say, ‘I feel strong, I feel in control,’ and it allowed me to reconnect with my body. As a survivor of sexual assault and an abusive marriage, I didn’t have ownership of my own body — until I started judo.”

Her interest in women’s self-defense and martial arts led her to ESD. That, too, she made her own.

“El HaLev is a bit like a distillery,” she explains. “We searched the world for the best practices in Empowerment Self-Defense and put them to a test in Israel to see what really works. We’ve taken knowledge from psychology, social work, education, ESD and the martial arts and distilled it into a system of how to teach teachers the best way of teaching people these lifesaving skills.”

She runs El HaLev voluntarily and charges just enough in fees to cover expenses including instructor salaries.

It’s not always a scary guy

Sidikman, an educator with a BA in psychology, explains that violence occurs on a spectrum. “It can be everything from irritating to life-threatening,” she says.

“Not all violence is ‘scary guy jumping out at you from the bushes in the park.’ It can be somebody you know who maybe had a little too much to drink and is not respecting your boundaries. And that can be just as dangerous as ‘scary guy jumping out of the bushes.’

“The principles we rely on in ESD are ‘think, yell, run, fight, tell.’ They’re all equally important and they’re not linear. Sometimes you just need to know how to yell ‘BACK OFF NOW’ or say calmly, ‘If you continue to disregard my boundary, you are a rapist.’ And you need physical skills – palm heel to the face, knee to the groin – to back that up.”

El HaLev teaches strategies to defuse a potential attack. A game called “Circle of Refusal” helps students get comfortable saying “no.” Sidikman calls these strategies “tools to navigate the world in a safe place.”

The center also offers courses in IMPACT (an adrenalin-based form of ESD), judo, taekwondo, karate, kung fu, capoeira, kickboxing, yoga and tai chi – all tying into Sidikman’s brand of ESD.

El HaLev instructor Ayelet Greenwald getting flipped in a judo class by Yudit Sidikman. Photo by Abigail Klein Leichman

El HaLev started with four people and now has 50 certified instructors teaching around Israel, including in LGBT and Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) communities. Sidikman even taught at a women’s prison.

One former El HaLev instructor is judoka Timna Nelson Levy, a gold medalist in Israel’s first-ever International Judo Federation (IJF) Grand Prix last January.

Teaching teachers

The 2017 rise of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment led Sidikman to spread her ESD teacher-training methods outside of Israel.

“Those of us who had been doing ESD for many years in several countries said, ‘Duh, we knew this was going on and we know what needs to be done to teach women they can protect themselves.’

“But they needed people to step into that role, and El HaLev has been doing that right,” she continues. “We’re getting young women who are passionate about their martial-arts training and passionate about leaving the world a better place than when they were handed it.”

ESD Global students in Samos, Greece. Photo courtesy of El HaLev

Sidikman shaped ESD Global instructor courses to be accessible and affordable. Full certification is a four-level process that begins with a weeklong summer camp.

The first camp in summer 2017, in upstate New York, attracted both martial-arts instructors and women in professions such as social work and counseling. Participants came from as far away as California, North Dakota, The Netherlands and Costa Rica.

The Costa Rican student was from the University of Peace. The next summer, nine classmate came with her.

“Then we brought three people to Costa Rica in 2019 to teach at the University of Peace,” says Sidikman. “My co-teacher was from Belize.”

A group of women in Costa Rica learning Israeli-style Empowerment Self-Defense. Photo courtesy of El HaLev

International instructor trainings happen throughout the year with partner organizations. ESD Global now boasts 101 graduates in 39 countries. Among these women are UN Human Rights Council staffers and indigenous women from Nicaragua.

“We did a teacher training at a refugee camp on the island of Lesbos in Greece. The staff found us online and reached out to one of our instructors,” says Sidikman. “Three of the women we sent to do the training were from Armenia and one from Myanmar, two from Ireland, one from Italy and one from mainland Greece.”

Women learning Empowerment Self-Defense in Lesbos, Greece. Photo courtesy of El HaLev

For men and boys

Although El HaLev tailors its training to girls and women, Sidikman is branching out. She cites a recent Israeli study showing that at least as many boys as girls aged 10 to 14 are victims of sexual assault.

“We ran an incubator last summer for 13 male educators and martial artists and self-defense instructors from places like California, Haiti, Slovenia and Nepal. We said, ‘We’ve created this system for women and girls and it’s not culturally appropriate for men and boys. We need you to help us do that.’”

In February 2020, El HaLev in Jerusalem will host an inaugural Global Conference for Violence Prevention Education. The conference will bring together experts in bystander intervention, anti-violence education and other disciplines in primary violence prevention.

“Learning to defend ourselves isn’t about gender or taking sides,” Sidikman says. “It’s not just about standing up to violence. It’s about defending our right to set and enforce the boundaries that keep us emotionally and physically safe.”

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