The ultra-Orthodox Jiujitsu Coach Who Trains Israel's Martial Arts Champions

With a black kippa, a long gray beard and a rare and positive attitude, Ilan Turgeman coaches fighters in Nahariya who reach the world championships

Itamar Katzir
Itamar Katzir
Ultra-Orthodox jiujitsu trainer Ilan Turgeman at his dojo in Nahariya.
Ultra-Orthodox jiujitsu trainer Ilan Turgeman at his dojo in Nahariya.Credit: Abdullah Shama
Itamar Katzir
Itamar Katzir

In what looks like the entrance to a parking lot in a renovated building near the Nahariya train station you can find one of the most productive factories in the country. They don’t produce plastic containers, home soda makers or medicine, nor do they lay off workers. In the small space with the low ceiling, there’s only one coach and a small staff, who consistently produce jiujitsu fighters who reach the highest international rankings.

This coach is Ilan Turgeman. “There are some people who bring their children here, see me, panic and flee,” he says. After all, it’s not every day that you come across a martial arts coach with a black kippa and a long gray beard. “There are adorable children here, aren’t there?” he says with pride as he look from the sidelines at his proteges, in this case aged 9 to 14, practicing combat.

During his lesson Turgeman, or sensei as his students call him, places particular emphasis on the appearance of the practitioners when they report for battle. He talks to the children about the importance of standing tall, and about control and confidence, and the impression that will make even on the most mature and experienced person.

“We get a child who lacks confidence, stands badly, and suddenly you see a child who knows how to express himself, who knows how to deal with all kinds of pressures, who has become more ethical,” he says. “He also becomes stronger physically, because he knows how to overcome all kinds of difficulties he has during practice.

“It’s a very interesting sport, just like chess with your body,” he continues. “We give the children tools that turn them into better people. The child understands all kinds of basic things. For example, that bad-mouthing my friend comes from weakness, not from strength. They learn to understand that what they see as a strong person isn’t the neighborhood bully. On the contrary, they understand that he lacks control, doesn’t restrain himself and doesn’t control himself. It’s amazing to see what changes that brings about in the children.”

Meanwhile, although Turgeman will declare that it’s not his goal, it also brings results. Jiujitusu, and especially the Brazilian version, has become one of the most popular sports in the world. In Israel it’s supported by Ayelet, the Federation of Non-Olympic Competitive Sport in Israel, and can boast many achievements, including medals in the World Games (parallel to the Olympic Games) and the World Championships (two bronze medals in the last championship game, in 2017). Quite a number of the athletes who won these medals came from Turgeman’s club in Nahariya.

“Today what’s important to me is the process, how they do it,” says the coach. “On the other hand, I’m very happy when they succeed. Even guys who aren’t ours, it’s great to hear that another Israeli has succeeded. Anyone who is envious and wants to see that only what he has produced [is a winner] is unfortunate.”

Turgeman comes from a religious home, left religion, but about a decade ago returned to it together with his wife Gabi, who is also a former fighter and coach. “At some point I had questions that apparently they couldn’t talk about with a child or didn’t know the answers, and I left,” he says. Fifteen years later Gabi forced him to attend a kabbala lesson. “I went with her and I started to criticize the lecturer. I said to him, ‘Sweetheart, why are you confusing us, speak to the point with me.’

Jiujitsu trainer Ilan Turgeman and students at his training center in Nahariya.Credit: Abdullah Shama

“I was somewhat sharp, and he, in a very calm and very impressive manner, answered me about what he knew how to answer. At the same time I started to visit Rabbi David Abuhatzeira. I’ve always had questions, I’ve been in monasteries and in all kinds of places all over the world, and nothing satisfied me. In the end all the answers are under our noses.”

On the face of it, Turgeman seems to have no problem combining a Haredi lifestyle with full-time jiujitsu coaching. Behind the scenes, he says, he has to overcome all kinds of difficulties. “My main problem is to attend competitions abroad,” he says. “In Israel they take it into consideration and have the competitions not on Shabbat, but abroad they can’t do that. It’s a shame because at the moment of truth I know that they need me.

“A ‘cornerman’ can activate the athlete the way you activate in a computer game. If he knows how to work, it’s a joystick. ‘Put your hand here, lower your head’ and that’s it.” And what if he isn’t there? For that the fighters have one another. “I try to teach them how to read a map — if two go to a competition, one watches the other and can understand the hold, how he can prevent moves, and how to talk to the friend in such a way that you activate him, build moves in words.”

Turgeman can also teach a thing or two to anyone who chooses to segregate boys and girls completely in the name of religion. “I have a group of girls here, for example. In terms of halakha [Jewish religious law] it’s somewhat problematic, mixed training sessions, but they also grew up here. So first of all I divide the mat: There’s a place for the girls and a place for the boys. I won’t give [the girls] up, I’m with them all the way. They know that there are certain rules, it’s not so complicated. The only thing I ask of them is to come with a T-shirt under their uniform, and we train on the same mat, the girls on one side and the boys on the other.”

Martial arts are woven like a thread through the history of the sensei from Nahariya. “My father registered me for martial arts in Acre in order to keep me off the street,” he says. “Slowly but surely I started to train in other places and in other methods. After the army my parents expected me to go and study, but I decided to buy a plane ticket to Japan and to go and do what I love.

“The first time I was exposed to jiujitsu was actually in Israel. Someone brought it here when it was almost nonexistent, and a world champion came with him who asked who wanted to engage in combat. I told him ‘I’ve just returned from the European Championship in karate, the fact that he was born in Canada doesn’t mean a thing.’ He left me helpless. I came back to my club and told them we were making a switch.”

The switch came quickly. Already in 2004 he, his wife and one of his students won the gold in the European Championship. The Turgemans flew to train in Brazil, and almost stayed there, but the students in Israel brought them back. “Jiujitsu is something in my genetic makeup, in my opinion,” he says. “The children here are family, I’m so connected to them, and there are so many who depend on me. The legendary coach Carlson Gracie told me ‘Stay here for half a year, I’ll start putting you into professional fights.’ My wife said to me, ‘Think about the children in Israel, about all the chaos around them, you’re a ray of light.’ I decided to return and I’m with them all the way.”

Ultra-Orthodox jiujitsu sensei Ilan Turgeman with his students.Credit: Abdullah Shama

The way he trains them developed over time. “While we were returning to our roots, you begin to understand things differently. I learned that you have to reach each person in a somewhat different way,” he says. “In ‘Ethics of the Fathers’ it says ‘Educate a child according to his own way, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” What’s the meaning of according to his own way, so does he do whatever he wants? No, it means that the art is to cause him to want to do what you think is right for him.”

“I’m a father and mother to some of these children,” says Turgeman. “There are coaches who if a fighter leaves them and he goes to train in another place, they close the door. It’s not like that here. As far as I’m concerned it’s my son. Someone’s son, no matter what he does — if he’s an addict or I don’t know what — he’ll support him. For example Evyatar [Paperni, who doesn’t train with him any more], I’ve known him throughout his childhood. I know how he thinks, what makes him laugh, what gets him down. I know everything about them.”

This claim is supported when Paperni, the winner of the bronze medal in the last World Games, enters the room and the following conversation ensues:

“Have you recovered from the flight?” asks Turgeman.

“Listen, today I was at a competition in the center of the country, but I didn’t compete,” replies Paperni. “I registered, but I had a ride and he had to get back. What, should I travel by public transportation for such a competition?”

“What’s the name of the guy who grabbed your back that time and won?”

“Yonatan Hangal.”

“What’s he doing?”

“He’s in New York.”


“Apparently not 100 percent.”

“With whom?”


“When he came here he had only ordinary ability! You looked down on him. You, you sometimes have this thing that you get into a half clutch, and then you lose because of that.”

“Just the opposite! I didn’t look down on him, I said ‘He trains with Marcelo, he’s probably an animal,’ and then I saw that it wasn’t so and I started to look down on him. If I had returned like that after two years with Marcelo I wouldn’t train any more.”

“If I had been your cornerman I would have shouted at you.”

“So why didn’t you shout at me?”

“Next time I’ll shout, you mustn’t take anyone lightly. If he taught you a lesson, that battle was worthwhile.”



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