Alec Rieger entered the doors of Stout Training’s Strip District location in 2015 one day after he turned 45. He had little knowledge of jiujitsu, but in the months leading up to his birthday Rieger watched countless mixed martial arts videos online. Something about the gentle art intrigued him, so Rieger traveled downtown to explore.
At the time, Rieger, founder and executive director of NextGen:Pgh, wasn’t necessarily beholden to Brazilian jiujitsu or to obtaining a coveted black belt. The latter seemed well beyond reach, as most practitioners require 10 years of training before receiving the honor and are considerably younger when beginning, explained Rieger.
Rieger had run and hiked, but something about jiujitsu resonated. Despite being a self-described “old Jewish dude” at the gym, Rieger got hooked and returned almost daily to reinvest in the discipline.
“It’s about the hardest thing I’ve ever discovered, and I think there’s real value at finding the hardest thing in the world you can and then working at it day after day in a sustained fashion to master it,” he said.
Repetitive training, year after year, granted Rieger greater perspective.
“That’s where the self-mastery comes in,” he said. “What you learn in order to survive the training, and to grow and to learn with it. It is really empowering.”
Nearly five years have passed since Rieger first stepped into Stout’s gym. He’s now got a blue belt. It is one of five belts (white, blue, purple, brown and black) presented within jiujitsu.
Months ago Rieger had a jiujitsu breakthrough, but it had nothing to do with his ability to choke, pass or bridge. With the help of Warren Stout, founder of Stout Training, Rieger introduced jiujitsu to nearly 30 students at Yeshiva Schools.
“We were having a conversation over the summer and Alec was saying how great the program is,” recalled Rabbi Eliezer Shusterman, principal of Yeshiva’s boys high school. The curriculum is such that “we have classes and programming on Sundays, no secular studies, and we’re always looking for out-of-the-box things for Sunday afternoons.”
With its heavy reliance on technique, study and intellectualism, jiujitsu offered a perfect complement to the students’ education, explained the rabbi.
The partnership made sense on many levels, agreed Stout.
Apart from Rieger recommending the relationship, and a desire to introduce jiujitsu to a new demographic, Stout knew from his own dealings that the venture presented a chance for communal betterment: “My best friend is Jewish — I was just at his house last weekend — and he’s had some incidents of harassment, and along with the Tree of Life tragedy that happened in Pittsburgh, I just thought it was a community that that this could help in a lot of different ways.”
Prior to last year’s attack, Rieger never connected jiujitsu with self-defense. Training, and mastery, were about something else, but between the aftermath of Oct. 27 and hearing from friends about regular anti-Semitic incidents in New York, Rieger’s thoughts shifted.
He wondered whether Jews needed to better prepare themselves, even as doing so ran largely contrary to traditional rabbinic thought. After the fall of the Second Temple, Jews were largely reluctant to fight their oppressors, continued Rieger. There was a belief that suffering was “because we sinned and God kicked us out of our land, and also that we don’t want to make trouble,” he said. Such ideas largely carried through the Holocaust, “and it’s only been in the last 70 to 80 years that we’ve begun to kind of rethink that premise and say, ‘Well, maybe we shouldn’t take it. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing to take some steps to learn how to defend ourselves and to defend ourselves if we need to.’”
There’s value in such a belief “especially in today’s day and age — we just heard about Jersey City,” noted Shusterman. “Obviously, we’re not going to be vigilantes out there, but to build a sense of confidence, where after a few months of training you don’t automatically feel like a victim and to have some sense of feeling as though you can protect yourself if needed” is something to consider. “As we know, healthy body, healthy mind and vice versa, and that all blends from a Torah perspective with what we’re trying to accomplish.”
With scheduling, curricular and other pragmatic details ironed out — Stout Training lent Yeshiva Schools mats for use, provided instruction and hasn’t charged them a penny — the first class was held more than a month ago. Ironically, the date was Oct. 27, 2019, one year to the day of the attack at the Tree of Life building.
“It was really heavy. We didn’t plan it that way. It just kind of worked out that way, and it wasn’t lost on me by any stretch. It really shook me up,” said Rieger. “Something about trying to empower young life, and make young life stronger, felt so appropriate to me. It was really kind of beautiful.”
On the first day of class, approximately 30 students arrived for instruction. One week later, nearly every student returned.
Stout, who had little prior exposure to the Lubavitch community, was immediately drawn to the participants’ practices and reasoning.
“They asked me questions about techniques,” he said. They were “thinking about it from all different contexts.”
Students also took to jiujitsu’s physical elements, explained Rieger.
During each 60-minute class, time is dedicated to drills, partnering and sparring. After an initial five to 10 minutes are spent demonstrating the move, the move is drilled for 20 minutes before students partner up for live training with full contact.
Students are receptive to instruction, said Stout.
“They like to have physical contact. They like to move their bodies in all different ways,” he said. “I think it’s a good balance between all the hours of sitting and studying and then to move a little bit while still using the mental capacities.”
So long as interest remains, Stout, a former nationally ranked Division 1 wrestler and dedicated instructor, has every intention of continuing the program at Yeshiva. While teenage boys are currently benefiting from the enterprise, Rieger would like to expand the offering. Stout is ready to help, and is cognizant of cultural sensitivities to mixed gender athletics. He offers dedicated women-only hours at his gym, and is hosting Girls in Gis (a gi is an outfit often worn in jiujitsu and other martial arts) on Jan. 12 from 1-4 p.m. The program is open to women and girls of all ages and skill levels.
“I am really proud of this project,” said Rieger. “My vision is that we should be able to scale to CDS and Hillel too.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.