Harvard Student Defers Medical Studies To Learn Krav Maga In Israel

May 12, 2011

Instead of studying for finals right now like most of his friends, Harvard student Gus Mayopoulos is studying self-defense in Israel.
He’s also touring the country and exploring its culture while participating in a 5-month Martial Arts and Fitness Program called Budokan Israel. The Charlotte, North Carolina native has no qualms about deferring his acceptance to Harvard University for one year, believing his decision to take the increasingly popular gap year option between high school and college will help him in making larger decisions later on, like what to study when he finally arrives on campus next fall. 
 
Originally set on enrolling in medical studies at Harvard University, Mayopoulos spent the first half of his gap year living with a family in Costa Rica while working at a medical clinic. Desiring to make the most of his year off before a grueling track of studying kicked in, Gus went the opposite direction for the second half of the year, both in content and geography, when he chose to study martial arts at Budokan Israel in Hod Hasharon, Israel. 
 
The three year-old program is relatively new and currently the only one of its kind in Israel or the world, according to co-founder Danny Hakim. The styles of martial arts taught include traditional ones such as Karate and Judo, along with the more modern Krav Maga, which is featured heavily in the curriculum. The focus is logical since Krav Maga was created and developed in Israel, and is the official fighting system of the Israeli Defense Forces.
 
The idea of learning the style directly from its roots has great appeal for many, and the staff at Budokan has enlisted a former IDF Special Forces soldier to teach the course. The other styles are equally represented with master instructors, as the Karate portion is taught by Hakim, a 2-time World Silver Medalist, while Judo is run by 14-time Israeli National Champion and former Olympic coach Yonah Melnik, both creators and co-directors of Budokan Israel. 
 
When he first started looking for gap year programs, Mayopoulos’s mother encouraged him to think about spending time in Israel, but he wasn’t interested, possibly for this very reason. However, he had a prior interest in Krav Maga, and while searching on a gap year program database he came across Budokan Israel’s website.
 
He was sold on the idea after discovering that the fighting system he had been drawn to was invented in Israel. “In high school there was no time for physical activity. I was always busy doing academic work and school stuff. I saw this as a great chance to explore my physical side,” says Mayopoulos. 
 
Participants range in age from 18-to-26 and come from all over the world, men and women, with martial arts backgrounds of various levels from beginner to black belt.
 
Interestingly enough, it’s the women who tend to be the black belts, like Nicky Green of Australia, a past gap-year participant who was thrilled to discover a way to advance her martial arts training which fit with her desire for more life experience, before continuing her education. “With all the opportunities it offers in terms of martial arts, meeting people and spending time in Israel, I knew this was for me.”
 
With twice-daily trainings, 3-4 times a week, physical fitness is as much a draw for the program as is martial arts itself. Participant Brian Ben-Hain of Miami, Florida says he’s already lost 15 pounds in the first two months and feels stronger both mentally and physically, a sentiment shared by most others in the group.
 
Although the curriculum is centered on martial arts and fitness, the reality that they are training and living in Israel is not lost on anyone. The program includes guided tours across the country, weekly instruction in Hebrew, and a Jewish Heroes course which has hosted a variety of guest lecturers including soldiers from landmark events in Israeli history such as the Raid of Entebbe, Operation Moses and the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor. There is even a week-long volunteer session in the Israeli Army to complete the experience. 
 
The program has had a life-changing impact on some, like Alex Cohen of Chicago, Illinois, who had never even been to Israel before joining, yet has already decided to extend his stay past the initial 5 months he signed up for. “I love it here. I’m playing on staying longer once the program ends and have already started looking for a job.” He wouldn’t be the first to do so as the program regularly has graduates who choose to stay and make a home in Israel, some temporary, some permanent. 
 
Will it have the same effect on Mayopoulos? It’s doubtful. He’s not quite ready to pass up the opportunity to attend one of the most prestigious universities in the world, no matter how much he’s enjoying his time in Israel. However, there’s no disputing that the program has had an impact on him in many ways, not least of which is his choice of major. Says Mayopoulos, “This program has given me a chance to think about things and explore what I want to do. What I was so set on before, medicine, now I’m aware there’s more interesting things out there, and I’ve been thinking about the State Department and Foreign Service.”
 
Whatever route he decides to go, it’s clear he’ll be able to choose it with a greater perspective on life than he had one year ago. 
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