Oceanside judo pro teaches self-defense

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Lepkofker became a judo expert while he was stationed at an Air Force base in Japan along with his twin brother, Bernard in 1955. “I got tired of doing basketball, so I needed something to keep me busy, and judo looked good,” said Bernard Lepkofker, who introduced Bob to the sport not even a week later. “So I figured, let me try it. And it worked out for me.” Once the twins started, they realized that the Japanese sport of judo was in their blood, even though they were two Jewish boys from Brooklyn.

The Lepkofkers were orphans who grew up in the Pride of Judea Children's Home in Brooklyn. “We had a hard time growing up," Bob said. "We were raised in an organization where they had 250 kids, and when you come out, you’re out on the street.” When they first left the orphanage, they were able to manage on their own. They both went to college on basketball scholarships, and found a small two-room apartment on Church Street which they shared with other people who had left the orphanage and who were paying the rent. Bob attended the University of Dayton in Ohio and Bernard went to the University of Rio Grande, also in Ohio. When they were home from school, the twins would stay at the apartment rent-free.

After two years of college, things started to get tough for the twins. Their scholarships just weren't enough to pay their tuition. They moved back to Brooklyn for a short time, but felt guilty living in the apartment and not paying rent because neither of them were able to find jobs. So, with few other options, they decided to join the Air Force. “They can take care of us, and then when we get out, maybe we can have some money saved up and we can be on our own,” Bernard recalled thinking at the time. “We had nobody helping us.”

Once they had finished their basic training at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, Bob requested a transfer to Tokyo, Japan. Three months later, Bernard joined Bob overseas. And it was there that, after getting tired of basketball, Bernard first tried judo.

“My brother started judo about a week before me, and one day he was playing judo, and I asked him, ‘What are you doing?’” Bob said. “And he said, ‘Come on, I want to show you.’ So I put on the uniform and that did it. I got stuck playing judo.”

While in Japan, the brothers competed in Air Force-sponsored judo tournaments, as well as others in the Tokyo area during their free time. They also trained at the Kodokan school, which, at the time, was the best judo school in the world. After only four months of training, the twins had earned their black belts, the highest rank in martial arts. While warming up for his black belt test, in which he had to defeat four opponents, Bob broke his toe. But he fought through the pain, literally, and managed to win all of his fights and earn his black belt.

The twins competed in tournaments in Japan in 1957 and into 1958. They honed their skills, and returned to the United States in 1958. They tried to compete in New York after their return, but, for reasons they didn’t understand, they received a lot of resistance from the people they were competing against.

“We came back from the far east, and thought, ‘Why do they hate us? We didn’t do anything,’” Bob said.

According to Stan Friedland, who wrote a biography about the Lepkofkers called "The Judo Twins," the reason that people didn't like them when they returned was simple. "They were jealous," Friedland said. "Pure envy and pure politics."

When the twins returned from Japan, they started publicizing judo. They went on popular television programs, like the Johnny Carson show, to promote the sport. They started doing exhibitions at places like Macy's, and became popular with ladies. They opened up their own judo school, the American Kodokan Judo School. “In our school, we had guys from Germany, Israel, Switzerland, Holland,” Bob said. “All of these guys came to our school to work out and train with us.”

All of this, according to Friedland, who grew up in the orphanage with the Lepkofkers, is what made the twins' peers jealous. "So they were getting business big time," said Friedland. "And their competitors and peers, who also had dojos and were also looking for publicity, turned on them."

At the time, the organization that ran official judo competitions was the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). According to AAU rules, only amateurs could compete in competitions, not professionals. And the AAU considered professionals people who owned their own school and got paid for lessons, like the twins. But the Lepkofkers came up with a way to beat the system: one of them would stay as the official head of their school and be professional, and the other would stay amateur in order to continue competing.

“So what happened was, we flipped a coin, and I lost,” Bob said. “I became the professional.” Friedland recounted the story slightly differently, though. He said that Bob actually won the coin toss, but let Bernard stay the amateur because he knew competing meant more to Bernard.

"Bob was the gracious brother and deferred to Bernard," Friedland said.

So Bernard went on to compete in more than 300 judo competitions during 30 years, while Bob couldn’t. According to Bernard, they would both teach at the school, but it was Bob’s name that was on everything, so that Bernard could still be considered an amateur by AAU rules.

It has been a long time since the Judo Twins, as they came to be known, have competed. Judo was never a full-time profession for either of them. Bob owned his own electrical equipment supply store, and Bernard worked in various jobs, many in security. The American Kodokan Judo School has been closed for many years, and both of them have given up teaching. They went on to start families, but left a very deep impression in the judo world.

"They have a very fine legacy to be proud of in the judo field," Friedland said. "They really went from the bottom of the mountain up to the pinnacle."

But the story of Bob's neighbor awoke a passion in him, and he wants to try to bring his judo knowledge to the public so they can learn to defend themselves.

The type of self-defense that Bob teaches is called kazushi, which is Japanese for balance or leverage. It teaches people how to break out of holds from eight different positions, depending on how they are approached by an attacker. Bob's version of kazushi teaches people how to break from holds in nonviolent ways: they break a hold and then can get away. He doesn't teach offensive moves, because he feels that it only leads to both people, the mugger and the victim, getting hurt.

"When you're in a street fight," he said, "there's no referee to yell 'stop.'"

Those interested in learning self defense from Bob can contact him by phone at 515-205-9246, or by e-mail at rltracer@aol.com.

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