Foiled in USSR, emigre lives fencing dreams as club coach
With swords drawn and shouts of “en garde,” a group of young fencers touched blades under the watchful eye of Leon Spector.
Spector, a fencing champion in the former Soviet Union, and his wife Marina fled their native Kyrgyzstan in 1990 to escape anti-Semitism, eventually settling in East Brunswick.
He started the Escrimeur — meaning “fencer” in French — Fencing Club, which now meets at the Fields Sports Complex in East Brunswick, drawing participants ages six to 59 from Middlesex, Monmouth, and Mercer counties.
“We run classes every night except Friday,” said Spector, the club’s head coach. “I don’t teach on Shabbat.” On Saturdays, the teaching is left to fellow coach Bill Chau.
Now exposed to “the full spectrum of Jewish life,” the Spectors observe Shabbat, celebrate Jewish holidays, and attend services regularly at Temple B’nai Shalom in East Brunswick, where their son, Aviv, and daughter, Arielle, became bar and bat mitzva. Marina works in the synagogue office and as assistant to the religious school director.
Arielle, who is entering her senior year of high school, is following in her father’s footwork, and, said Spector proudly, “is one of the best fencers in the club.”
In 1992, when Spector was looking to again take up fencing, the closest fencing clubs were in north Jersey. “Today, New Jersey is the largest fencing state in the country as far as the number of fencers and clubs,” said Spector, who owns his own computer consulting firm.
The rising interest in a sport long popular in Europe, particularly in the former Soviet bloc countries, has largely been sparked by the number of immigrants, many of them Jews, who left those countries in recent decades and are now coaches. Fencing is now a team sport in many schools.
“Fencing is and has always been a very Jewish sport,” said Spector, as he listed top fencers and Olympic competitors from Europe, the United States, and Israel. “If you look back to the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, you see a lot of Jewish names. When you look at the Olympic champions, the percentage of Jews is humongous.”
Among them are Soren Thompson, a member of the current U.S. Olympic team heading to London; Sada Jacobson, who in 2004 became the first American woman to be ranked number one in the world in saber and won a bronze in the 2004 Olympics and a silver medal in the 2008 games; and Jeffrey Bukantz of Livingston, captain of the U.S. Fencing Team in the 2008 Olympic Games and son of the late Daniel Bukantz, a member of four Olympic squads.
Another emerging champion is Benjamin Weinfeld of East Brunswick, who is training with Spector for the Maccabiah games in Israel next summer.
Barrett Ziegler, a spring graduate of Wall Township High School, recently became rated by the United States Fencing Association.
“Leon has definitely helped me step by step,” said Ziegler, as he took a break during a recent practice. “He starts with the basics and has helped me make improvements.”
Spector said as a child he dreamed of becoming a fencer and joined a club at age eight.
However, the Soviet government made success almost impossible for Jewish athletes, placing obstacles on travel abroad for all but a very few top competitors.
“Some of kids who were Jewish really tried to keep a low profile and not acknowledge they were Jewish,” he said.
Nevertheless, Spector made the Kyrgyz Youth Sabre Team in the 1978 USSR Junior Olympics. By the end of high school, he had earned the title of Master of Sports in fencing and later was captain of the fencing team at Frunze Polytechnic Institute.
With his club, Spector is now living some of his fencing dreams. In June, it hosted a future stars tournament, bringing together some of region’s top young participants, and in April brought in U.S. Olympians Tim Morehouse and Daryl Homer to run a well-attended clinic.
The club is running summer camp, and Spector is instructing youngsters this summer at the Institute for the Gifted at Princeton University.
During a recent session, David Scherer of Spotswood watched approvingly as his nine-year-old son, Alex, wielded his sword.
“He plays football and soccer, but those are team sports that rely on others to succeed,” said Scherer. “In fencing you have no one else to rely on to make or break your game. There’s an individual spirit of competition. It’s a real learning process, a life lesson. He’s really getting better under Leon’s tutelage.”