Written By: Logan Schiciano
North Shore Dojo has a long history of sending fighters to The Maccabiah. At least 20 members of Team USA have trained at the karate dojo over the last 40 years in Glenview, Illinois – just 20 miles north of downtown Chicago.
In July, Julia Kerpel will join the list.
“We have Maccabi flags all over the dojo, so I know Maccabiah is a really big deal,” said Kerpel, 17, of Highland Park, Illinois. “I always thought it was a really fun idea, but I just never imagined that I could do it. Then, one day my sensi said ‘Hey Julia, you’ll do Maccabiah.’ And I said ‘Okay!’”
Karate runs in the Kerpel family. Her mother and grandmother are both black belts. For Julia, it was only a matter of time until she received one of her own.
“There was always this goal of ‘My mom wants me to get a black belt, so I’ll get a black belt,’” Kerpel said.
She achieved that goal alongside her brother, Andrew, in November 2020. And that’s when she had a shift in mindset.
“I never really thought about why I did karate before I got my black belt. I just did it because my mom said to do so,” Kerpel said. “Since the moment I got my black belt, karate – it was just for me.”
At a stage in life when some put the gi and belt away, Kerpel was just getting started. Last summer, she participated in her first tournament – the 2021 USA National Karate Championships and Team Trials in Schaumburg, Illinois. And she won third place.
Kerpel said she arrived to the competitive karate scene much later than many kids at North Shore Dojo. She said this was because for a while, she was hesitant to compare herself to others.
“I don’t like losing,” Kerpel said. “With my other activities, I’ve strived away from competition. Ignorance is bliss.”
However, since that initial bout, Kerpel has pushed herself to keep things in perspective.
“The biggest challenge is having to accept that I might not be at [my competitor’s] level of experience, but the gift I have is that I’m aware of that,” Kerpel said.
Kerpel said the COVID-19 pandemic gave her more time to sharpen her skills on the mat. During the school year, she’s at the dojo at least three days a week to train and help teach other classes. In the summer, it’s karate every day of the week.
“She comes in and trains hard every day. She’s extremely aggressive and a really tough fighter. A lot of people don’t want to be in the ring with her,” said Dr. Darren Brenner, a sensi at Kerpel’s dojo and the head coach for the U16/18 karate team at the 2022 Maccabiah this summer.
“She’s so capable and confident,” said Melissa Kerpel, Julia’s mother. “If she has a hard time with something it makes her want it even more. She is truly an amazing person.”
But Kerpel is not just devoting her time to karate. She’s a dancer, a flutist and the youngest registered Zumba instructor in the Chicagoland area. Kerpel is also on her school’s math team and is the ambassador coordinator for Greenlight for Girls – an organization based in Brussels, Belgium that helps young girls around the world pursue projects in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). She said she sees a connection between her STEM-related work and karate.
“When you think of a karate person, you don’t think of a teenage girl,” Kerpel said. “Seeing these stereotypes and image models that I’m trying to break, that has a connection because in STEM, it’s all about empowering girls to do what they want to do – to be the scientist, to be the researcher.”
It’s a busy schedule, but Kerpel said she has no regrets.
“I make time for what’s important,” Kerpel said.
For the girl who used to be afraid of losing, she’s approaching her July trip with a new mindset.
“Just going to Israel is a win,” she said. “If I walk away with a medal that’s great, but I’m just excited to see what I’m made of.”