Black and white portraits of martial arts masters line the walls of Rob Eisenberg’s dojo inside the small, paneled basement of his house in Damascus. Eisenberg is a yon-dan, a fourth degree black belt in the Okinawan Japanese martial art of Uechi Ryu.
Eisenberg has been practicing for 35 years, since graduate school when he joined a karate club at the University of Virginia. There he met his first sensei, or teacher, Marty Dow.
“This was not your run of the mill, strip mall karate place,” Eisenberg, 57, explains. “Marty was really special, and that’s what really got the hooks in me.”
In 1991, not long after Dow retired, Eisenberg began to teach what he knew.
Eisenberg gets excited as he speaks about his teachers, gesturing to the photographs around the room.
In Uechi Ryu, once one becomes a shodan, or first degree black belt, his progress is tracked, in part, by how well his students are doing.
“Traditional Okinawan karate is not just about punching and kicking,” he says. “Training the body — but training the mind [and] training the spirit. [It’s about] being a better person through karate training. And that’s something I really emphasize with my students.”
Especially now that he is retired after three decades at Lockheed Martin, Eisenberg is focusing more on passing down his knowledge of Uechi Ryu.
He has nine students: four adults who come to his dojo and five children whom he teaches at his synagogue, Congregation Or Chadash, in Damascus.
Working with a small group allows him to focus on each person. He is able to adjust a student’s position or moves.
Larger, strip mall dojos don’t offer that same kind attention, he says, adding that they are more like exercise classes than a focus on the discipline.
Eisenberg says he tries to incorporate Jewish lessons into his classes for children. He teaches them about the importance of focus and using martial arts for good. It’s not hard, he explains, to combine the traditional Okinawan ideas with Jewish ones, since they are often similar.
For Eisenberg, Uechi Ryu is about learning focus and self-discipline. That may be too esoteric and restrained for his youngest students. They want to spar, he says.
“You have to give them a little more of the sports stuff because that’s something they relate to more readily,”
None of his adult students are interested. If they were, he’d encourage them to pursue it.
“It’s very much what’s the right thing for each student. I would never push a student into doing a sparring a competition if they didn’t want to,” he says.
And even though he is a fourth-degree black belt, Eisenberg is still very much a student. There are 10 degrees of black belt in Uechi Ryu, and it can take years to move in between levels. The last time Eisenberg moved up a rank was in 2011.
It can take decades of practice and training to become a master. “It’s very much not about just what you do, but what your students do.”
Neither of his children have followed in his footsteps. His son passed up karate for baseball, and his daughter never expressed interest, though Eisenberg gave her and her friends self-defense lessons.
In July, Eisenberg will travel to Okinawa for the first time to train and practice with his current sensei and others. Before retiring, he never had the chance to travel there. Now, he says, he has the time and energy to work on mastering his martial art.
“All I focus on now and all I care about is getting better.”