Even as an eight-year-old tomboy who hated frilly dresses and never owned a doll, not in my wildest dreams did I imagine that one day I would become a Tae Kwon Do master. A Torah observant one! With kids, nonetheless.

It all began twenty-three years ago when my mom enrolled my younger brother, Gabe, five-years old at the time, in a new and interesting extra curricular activity. In an effort to enrich his life with something unique and provide an outlet for physical activity, she signed him up for Tae Kwon Do lessons. But much to her dismay, on the very first night of class, somewhere between the forced push-ups, the strict army-like rules, and the torturous stretches, little Gabey lost it. He began sobbing like the five-year old that he was and ran out of the dojang (training hall) swearing never to return to that crazy, scary class.

"Tae Kwon Do is weird," he whined, "and the teacher is mean." It was in that moment of fear and anguish for my brother that a wonderful life-changing opportunity opened up to me. You see, somebody had to fill Gabe's non-refundable spot in the class and lucky for me there was no competition among my other five siblings. That very week, at the age of eight, I attended my first Tae Kwon Do lesson and fell in love with the sport. Twenty-three years later, with three kids of my own, I'm still loving it.

A wonderful life-changing opportunity opened up to meLooking back I'm not sure what it was that drew me to this ancient Korean martial art. Maybe it was the way my teachers would run and up down the walls with such grace and ease, insisting that the impossible is possible so long as we don't give up. Maybe it was the feelings of achievement and confidence I felt after training so hard, and pushing myself through a challenging workout to the point where I could literally ring out my uniform and create a tiny puddle of sweat on the floor. Or maybe it was the outlet it provided for me to safely deal with the stresses of growing up with my severely disabled older brother, Josh.

No matter what the initial draw was, I certainly took to it and was determined to succeed. I was intrigued by the discipline and intensity of each lesson. I appreciated being involved in something so different from what my siblings and friends were doing. It made me feel unique and special. I even took pleasure in the forced push ups, the strict army-like rules and the torturous stretches.

My self-confidence was benefiting as well, perhaps a little more rapidly than my parents would have liked, because by the young age of nine-and-a-half I took a dare that lead me to my very first street fight. As a hard-hitting high-green belt I was not at all afraid of Antony, the eleven-year-old anti-Semite who was two heads taller than me. I was not afraid to stand up for myself when he and his cousin Helen began cursing, and threatening to beat me and my siblings up. I was, however, afraid of myself after seeing that a reverse crescent kick to the face really could knock a person to the ground! In fact, I was utterly shocked. I never really expected to fight and use these skills outside the classroom. I left poor, beaten little Antony on the front lawn like a sack of manure and ran into my house, bruise-less yet emotionally shaken, to throw up all over the bathroom floor.

As time went on I outgrew my local dojang and moved up to a better, more advanced training salon. Four nights a week I would trek to the far out suburbs and work out with best of them. There I made a name for myself as the Jewish girl who could knock a pair of glasses off the face of a grown man with a simple round house kick to the head. I was even good enough to hang out with my Korean contemporaries after class. They invited me to karaoke bars and Korean cafés where they would eat kimchee and octopus. Despite our differences we still managed to remain friends and share a common dream: the dream of "bringing home the gold." No, not home to America, but home to Korea and Israel.

One tournament at a time I was getting closer to my Olympic goal. I was in my third year of University, working part time as a waitress, pursuing my acting career and training three hours a day for the upcoming Pan-Am Games. Also during that time my friends were starting to get married, I had fallen in love with my future husband and my dear father of blessed memory was diagnosed with colon cancer. With all that as a backdrop, my three hours of daily Tae Kwon Do training went from being a pleasure to a burden. I was no longer in the mood to listen to my coach yell about kicking harder and moving faster as if his very life depended on the speed of my side kick. I became disillusioned with the importance of winning and sick of the significance he attributed to being the BEST. With chemo and radiation wafting through the air and the possibility of my father dying, I started questioning the purpose of life and the purpose of my Olympic goal. "What am I doing this for?" I asked. "Who cares if I become this year's champion or if I even make it to the Olympics at all? What's the point?" I couldn't find a sufficient answer. And the more my coach tried to convince me of its importance, the more strongly I felt otherwise. So after taking the gold at the Pan-Am games I threw in my sweaty towel and said, "No more competing for me. I'm done with this foolishness.

Over the course of the next few years, I lived in NY, LA, and Chicago. While in Chicago I landed a couple of acting jobs and graduated from DePaul University. I also got married during those few years, honeymooned in Thailand for five months,then moved back to Chicago, had a baby, and taught Tae Kwon Do and kickboxing classes to Jewish women in my community.

Still on the hunt for life's real purpose, my husband (who had spent years meditating in Southeast Asia) and I decided that "a year" of Torah study in Israel was absolutely necessary. So we packed up a few things, swaddled our baby and headed straight to Bat Ayin, a neo-Chassidic hippy-religious village on the West Bank. There we spent six wonderful months studying in our respective yeshivot and living in an old dilapidated caravan on the side of a cliff surrounded by other old dilapidated caravans that served as married student housing. I ate carobs and figs straight from the trees, hitchhiked through the "territories" with my daughter strapped to my chest, and hung my laundry outside to dry on a broken telephone wire.

The real test, it turned out, was one of integrity When my husband decided he wanted to spend our last six months in a different yeshiva we moved to Jerusalem where we happily remained for the next three-and-a-half years. Over the course of those years we were blessed with two more children and a lot of Torah learning. To make ends meet (sort of) I worked as a personal fitness trainer by day and a Tae Kwon Do and kickboxing instructor by night. I spent whatever free time I had left writing short stories, attending Torah classes and training myself for the test that I always wanted to take— the 4th degree black belt promotional test.

When I called my Tae Kwon Do Master in America to tell him I would be coming home to test under him, the real test, it turned out, was one of integrity and moral courage. Would I have what it would take to ask for what I needed? I was fraught with nervous emotions as I imagined what I would sound like on the phone. "Uhhh, Master Sim Boo Baek? Hi, it's Sunny. Yeah uh, so like, since we've been away in Israel I learned a little about my religion and uhhh, it's kinda' different from yours and um…would you mind bending a few of the rules just a smidge so I could maintain my religious observance throughout the test? Don't worry, nothing major, just ummm—if you could switch the test from Saturday to Sunday, allow me to wear a skirt over my uniform and a scarf over my head and, while you're at it—no contact with men? And oops, I almost forgot, call me Ariella from now on."

This was not an easy feat for me. After so many years of being "Sunny the tomboy" who never had an issue sparing with boys I felt cemented in that personality mold, as though it were too strong to break. "He'll think I'm an insane religious fanatic," I said to my husband who was helping me through, "how am I supposed tell him that at the same time I want to advance in this martial art I also want to make a mockery of the traditional uniform by wearing a skirt over it? He won't possibly agree to something so ridiculous and even if he did I might just die of embarrassment while asking the question so I probably shouldn't even bother."

But miraculously I got up the courage to place the call and even more miraculously Master Baek readily agreed! "Anything for you, Ariella," he complied. And in the fall of 2006, following all aspects of Jewish law, I became a Tae Kwon Do master!

Recently, we moved back to Chicago. In trying to integrate ourselves into the Orthodox community I have also been trying to integrate my old self into who I have become. I still have a deep passion for martial arts and I greatly look forward to the day I can teach my children Tae Kwon Do. But truth be told, my goals extend far beyond the passing over of a few good techniques. I strive to bring people closer to our Creator by helping build self-discipline, self-empowerment, self-awareness, self-respect, and self-esteem though a kosher Tae Kwon Do lens. Through martial arts, like everything else in life, it's possible to really get to know ourselves, what we're made of and what we stand for. And I believe this knowing is crucial, especially for a Jew. By training hard and constantly striving to progress we achieve a level of perseverance and patience that strengthens not only our bodies but our minds and hearts as well.

This was my consciousness while teaching Tae Kwon Do in Jerusalem. Feeling infused with joy and meaning, I witnessed my students grow and develop in important ways, and to me- this was the real fulfillment of "bringing home the gold."