Don’t be fooled by her gray hair and slight stature, or by her self-effacing manner and humorous banter. Anyone planning to sneak up behind Lisa Schwartz would do well to reconsider.
A "sensei sixth dan," or sixth-degree black belt in traditional Okinawan karate, Schwartz runs the dojo (karate studio) at the YJCC in Washington Township.
"I’ve been here since the beginning," she says, "over 18 years. We’re considered part of the Y."
Schwartz estimates that she teaches between 85 and 100 students each year, from 4 years old to over 60. Classes are offered five days a week.
"The 4-year-old ‘Little Samurais’ are adorable," she says, noting that they wear T-shirts instead of belts, "otherwise we’d spend the whole time tying belts."
Some of her students have been with her from the beginning, and Schwartz notes that she has trained "tons" of black belts.
"Everyone has their own reason for studying karate," she says, and they go beyond self-defense. Some people come for the exercise, she says, while others come for the discipline. Classes include many families.
"The parents bring their kids and sit outside and watch. But when they see how much fun it is, they want to join, too," she says.
Whatever their reason for coming, they "learn to work together as teams, to respect each other, and to make friends," says Schwartz, noting that the movie "Karate Kid" "at least the first one" was an accurate portrayal of the deep friendship that develops between teacher and students.
A resident of Washington Township, Schwartz, the senior-ranking woman sixth dan in the United States, is also a freelance graphic artist and photographer. She and her husband, Larry, a seventh-degree black belt, met in a karate class in West Paterson.
"I kicked him in the stomach and he asked me out," she said. "We’ve been married ‘8 years."
Schwartz has been studying karate since 197′.
"I was ” and working in Manhattan," she said, "all hours of the night and day. I had a bad hip so I couldn’t run." To make up for her limited speed, she decided to learn the art of self-defense.
Despite her hip she has since had a total hip replacement Schwartz says she kept pace with the rest of the class.
"It took a while to find my confidence," she said.
Schwartz has been studying karate ever since, even into the sixth month of both pregnancies (she has two children), and was back on her feet several months after delivering each child. She takes classes with Sensei Seikichi Iha, a 10th-degree black belt and the U.S. head of her "system" Shorin Ryu Shido-Kan, or "authentic, traditional Okinawan karate."
Schwartz says she "learns something new every day from my teacher and my students."
The word "traditional" is key in her system of karate, and Schwartz maintains that her organization is a "direct descendant" of the original masters.
In traditional Okinawan karate, she explains, the emphasis is entirely on self-defense. Those seeking to fight in tournaments generally pursue "sports karate," says Schwartz, whose classes focus heavily on learning drills and self-defense techniques.
"Thank God I’ve never needed to use them," she says, "but I have learned to project an aura of confidence, and people don’t bother you when you look confident."
Schwartz adds that "the first thing I tell people is to get over being squeamish." If you’re attacked, you need to remember that "you and your family come first."
She believes that people can learn the rudiments of self-defense techniques in four to six months, although mastering complicated techniques takes years. "But you don’t need complicated techniques to get away from an attacker," she says.
She has taught corporate groups and stresses the "simple, basic premises to help keep you safe things you can remember." She is hoping to offer a six- to eight-week self-defense course at the YJCC in September.
Doug Cohen of Woodcliff Lakes, who has been studying with Schwartz for over four years, says he had wanted to learn karate since he was a kid.
"When we put down roots here and joined the YJCC, I decided to try it and I love it," he says.
The 36-year-old father says the evening class is held at "just the right time," giving him time to put the kids to bed before he goes to the YJCC. He tries to go two to three times a week.
"It’s a great workout for the entire body," he says, adding that it tones the muscles and provides cardiovascular benefits. Also, says Cohen, "it’s great for stress release. I spend a long time commuting and this helps me release my tension."
Cohen who has played the "male attacker" in class demonstrations says he wouldn’t want to use the skills he’s learned, but he definitely feels he could defend himself.
His wife Jodi, who attended one self-defense session with Schwartz a year ago, said that while she doesn’t remember everything she learned, she now knows that she should carry her car keys in her hand when going to the mall at night, since "you can use them as a weapon."