Neil Ripski practicing kung fu at Masada.

Neil Ripski practicing kung fu at Masada.

Creston’s Red Jade Martial Arts founder teaches and learns in Israel

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  • Nov. 28, 2014 4:00 p.m.

Red Jade Martial Arts founder Neil Ripski went to Israel in October to teach for two days at the Tel Aviv University — and ended up becoming a pupil himself, not realizing how different that part of the world really is.

A former Creston student, Tomehr ben Johanan, is in the martial arts program at the university — where, Ripski said, anyone goes who wants to be a coach studies — and was instrumental in having Ripski visit. As one of only a few teachers in the world, Ripski was hired to instruct drunken boxing, a type of Chinese martial art that imitates a drunkard’s movements.

“I just got lucky and learned something no one else learns,” said Ripski, who will teach a similar workshop in Rome in the winter. “It wasn’t part of the plan.”

In Tel Aviv, he taught high-level teachers from other martial arts, and a few who actually taught martial arts in the military.

“Through martial arts, they learn about themselves so they become better people,” he said.

Martial arts students in Canada can also do that, but are much more concerned with doing it right than delving into the philosophical side.

“Here, we question it more: ‘Where do I put my hand? What do I do?’ ” said Ripski.

But then, in Israel, residents are much more used to looking at a bigger picture, with politics and religion — avoided by many Canadians — key topics in any conversation.

“It’s all they talk about all the time,” said Ripski. “It’s survival. Even in their own country, people are killing each other over religion. … Everyone is hungry to talk about it. It was like that all through the workshop.”

But religion is more than just a concept — that focus can be quite personal.

“There’s no way to ignore it,” Ripski said. “People are actively referred to by their religion a lot. Someone will say, ‘I was talking to this Jew the other day…’ ”

As if talking about it weren’t enough, the danger of life in the Middle East was driven home particularly well when Ripski went to the Dome of the Rock, a site holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians.

“It’s the most hotly contested piece of real estate on Earth,” he said.

During his visit, Muslim youths were in a tower throwing stones at people of other denominations, while a person with a megaphone stirred up the crowd. As army officers began discussing the situation, ben Johanan suddenly steered Ripski away from the area — the officers began shooting tear gas into the crowd moments later.

“It was pretty wild,” Ripski said. “It was the most potential violence I’ve ever been near.”

Of course, trip had less dangerous portion, too, including a visit to the Dead Sea and the location where the Dead Sea scrolls were found, and King Herod’s palace at Masada, where Ripski and ben Johanan enjoyed coffee at sunrise. They began training in the ruins, and while they were there, a young Israeli man and his little brother (left, with Ripski) came up to them. They boy trained in kung fu, as well, and they spent an hour or so demonstrating their skills.

“Even with a language barrier we became ‘kung fu friends’,” said Ripski.

On the Via Dolorosa, the street Jesus is said to have walked to his crucifixion, he saw one pillar a few feet high, carved 2,000 years ago by Romans.

“These were the guys that crucified Christ!” Ripski said.

And other powerful sights defied a simple description.

“We went to the Wailing Wall, and it’s not normal,” Ripski said. “There’s spiritual power there.”

The visit was one that Ripski won’t soon forget, and a reminder that belief systems are volatile — something he’s happy to pass on to his Creston Valley students.

“Just be open-minded,” he said. “Don’t go anywhere with assumptions.”