By Rachel Dobkin
A beloved local Ju Jitsu dojo closed on June 27 after 27 years of service to the community.
Zanshin Self Defense Academy on Jackson Avenue in Syosset has been run by Sensei Karen Lamb, 58, since the late ‘90s, starting as a bustling school of kids and adults with a passion for the sport. However, as other extracurriculars got more mainstream and additional self defense schools popped up in the area, Lamb found it harder to retain students.
“When I first started, I had probably 150 students and then things just started to change,” Lamb said. Currently, Lamb, a single mother who works three separate jobs on the side, has around 40 students dedicated to the craft.
“We had 9/11 and then the kids got into more involved sports,” she said. “Lacrosse became popular … schoolwork became harder. And there was also within this neighborhood more competition with other martial arts schools.”
Lamb started her own Ju Jitsu journey in her 20s, eventually earning her 4th Degree Black Belt. After being a student herself, Lamb took on a teaching role. “I love working with the children and I, at one time, wanted to become a school teacher,” Lamb said. “But instead I incorporate it into teaching the children here self-defense and adults self-defense.”
“I thought that was very important for the kids and adults. And especially with the way the world is and the way the world is changing. I wanted to make sure that everybody could learn how to defend themselves,” she added.
Lamb loved seeing her students grow up and their confidence increase. The sensei pointed out that while schoolteachers may only get a year with each grade of students, she gets to be there over the long haul.
“I’ve had kids where they started when they were four or five years old and some of them continued all the way up until they finished high school and went off to college,” she said, noting that the dojo feels like a “family atmosphere.”
As a small business owner, Lamb was able to form deep bonds with her students. “I consider myself like a mom and pop type of store. I’m not like a chain or franchise. You just grow up with these kids. Some of these kids I went to their Bat Mitzvahs, Bar Mitzvahs, weddings I’ve gone to. So it’s like a lifelong friendship that you have,” she said.
After almost three decades of owning the dojo, Lamb has to shutter her doors because of rent increases and the hit that the COVID-19 pandemic took on business.
“The decision to close down was not easy. It’s very heartbreaking because of the amount of time that I’ve been here,” she said. “The economy is changing and then my landlord was like, ‘I have another tenant that can come in and pay more rent, utilities, and maintain the building.’”
Lamb said she could not compete with that offer, especially with student enrollment decreasing. She feels for the kids who will lose the opportunity to continue to learn how to defend themselves. “It’s unfortunate that things are just so expensive that a small business owner is struggling to stay in business, but is doing it for good reasons, to help people out for self-defense,” she said.
“It’s very disappointing because I put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into this,” Lamb said. “I see it in the kids’ faces now that they know that I have to close. You can see how sad they are and disappointed, whereas they came in a month ago and they were happy and everything was great.”
If you walked into Zanshin Self Defense Academy in the days since Lamb broke the news of her business closure, you would see grown kids coming back to say goodbye to their former sensei and showing their gratitude towards her.
“I just hope that I gave them more confidence than when they first walked in here,” she said. “The focusing and the attention that has helped them as well. Some kids have ADHD and it has helped them. Some kids came in here where they got occupational therapy or physical therapy and this has helped them to eliminate all that because of the strength building that’s down here.”
The sensei has also taught her students “to respect others, no matter who you are or what you are, that you respect everyone equally, because that’s important in this day and age.”
Lamb said she is still as passionate about teaching as she was when she started. While the academy on Jackson Avenue might close on June 27, Lamb will continue to look for places with affordable rent. In the meantime, she is also available for private lessons at clients’ homes.