Sporting her scarf or a beret, five foot tall Sarah Rivkah Ernstoff is often involved in one of many 'womanly' arts: cooking her creative health-food Shabbos repasts, playing with her 6 month old baby, or leading a La Leche meeting.
But watch out; this diminutive dynamo can pack a punch! A five time USAAU National Champion in Kata, she has been practicing and teaching karate for 25 years, now from her dojo in her home. How did she journey from the globe-trotting world championships and trips to Japan to study with her Sensei, to walking Pete, the family donkey, through the olive groves and winery of Tekoa, her home in the Judean hills?
Sarah started karate at age 17, and by 19 her talent and hard work had her competing in national championships. But despite her success and status, she had a sense of emptiness, even depression. Someone told her to pray. Always honest and up front, Sara replied, "How can I pray if I don't believe in G-d?" She was encouraged to do it anyhow, and found some relief. Figuring, "Since I'm Jewish, I might as well pray Jewishly," she bought a siddur and chose random prayers.
The dry goods store where Sarah bought her green belt was run by a dynamic chasid, Rabbi Zhia Zuber, who invited her for Shabbos. She declined. The rising star returned often for new belts, which came with more invitations, until she leveled off as a 3rd degree black belt. Then the major consciousness raiser began.
Preparing for tryouts for the World Championship Team, Sarah noticed that they were scheduled for Rosh Hashanah. She informed the officials she could not participate, and asked for an alternate date, which she was promised. In the end, the date wasn't changed, and she sued the AAU. A team of 30 Jewish lawyers from the ADL and AJC, including Alan Dershowitz, took the case to Federal Court, and won.
But Sarah found herself blacklisted. "My career was ruined. I was never again able to compete internationally, although I was a Pan American Gold Medal winner and had been on international teams. I was shocked into realizing who my real friends were. My karate associates turned their backs on me, and 30 lawyers I'd never met worked thousands of hours for free."
With her spunk and forward-looking vision, she rebounded. "If I can't be a karate champ, I might as well get married and build a Jewish family. I wanted to live a Jewish life and show everyone my pride, but how?
"I went back and accepted a Shabbos invitation. That started a path of learning and growing that continues to this day. "Eleven years after meeting Rabbi Zuber he officiated at my wedding to Moshe, a nice Jewish computer programmer from Miami."
Moshe and Sarah bought a house in Sharon, Ma., a Boston suburb where they met the dynamic Chabad shluchim, Rabbi Chaim and Sara Wolosow. "The Wolosows showed us that Judaism can be fun. Staying up all night to build a giant menorah, preparing thousands of Purim packages, letting us give and feel an integral part of the community was very special. They honestly cared about us as individuals. If something in Yiddishkeit upset me, Rabbi Wolosow took the time to listen, and to thoroughly explain."
Moshe's Federal job led to a move to Columbia, Md. for a year. Though they enjoyed Rabbi Hillel and Chani Baron's warm community, they grew closer to the decision to make aliyah. "Sharon was kind of a cocoon. But here in Maryland, besides our Shul, we saw how empty the typical American lifestyle was. We wanted more for our children. I'd been ready for aliyah, but now Moshe was getting serious." A trip to the Holocaust Museum left him in tears, realizing, "We don't belong here. We belong in Israel."
Friends around the world kept abreast of their aliyah progress and process through loving letters, and Sarah's centenarian grandfather e-mailed twice weekly. Funny and poignant, they describe encounters with the infamous Israeli bureaucracy (which was never the same after meeting Sarah!), son Kobi's Bar Mitzvah at the Kotel, wheelings and dealings in the Shuk.
Leaving family, job security, weeding through possessions, and embarking on a new life was hard, challenging, and exciting. There was the absorption center filled with friendly people from all over the world in the same process of cultural acclimation. We vicariously enjoyed the euphoria of strolling through Jerusalem. Three years ago, the Ernstoffs decided to build a home in Tekoa, a West Bank settlement of 275 families about a twenty minute (pre-intifada) drive east of Jerusalem.
Sarah speaks earnestly about living in Yesha (Yehuda-Shomron), or as she deadpans, "the Wild West." "I wanted to come here and live, I didn't want to see our land given away. I have limited resources, what can I personally do? Now there are seven more Jews living here. In my daily life I am strengthening our hold on the land."
So, what's daily life like under fire?
"It's hard. The mothers especially feel the fear and anxiety."
The residents band together to cope: Tehillim (psalms) rallies, self-defense classes, providing entertainment and diversion for the children, and walking together to relieve stress.
"We pray a lot. You have to practice what you preach, and constantly work on strengthening your faith and trust. When you hear machine guns, and wonder where they are, it's really hard.
But there are nice things happening, too. We get supportive calls and e-mails from all over. People are praying for us, writing letters of protest, holding rallies. A non-Jewish group in Ohio sent us bullet-proof vests that the residents share. We feel the unity of our Jewish family, and the caring of other concerned people."
Her letters now reflect the pain of living under siege. As older siblings discuss a casualty, 9 year old Channi claps her hands to her ears. "I'm only 9! I don't want to think about death and war!" A letter to Grandpa after the Kahane murder opens with, "I'm fine. But how fine can I be, how can I sit here and enjoy my baby, when 6 orphans cry for their parents!"