Sensei Yehuda (Leon) Pantanowitz was born on November 30th, 1938 in the city of Klerksdorp, Transvaal, Republic of South Africa.
His first martial art was Judo, which he took up in 1956 at the age of 17, with Sensei Jack Burbridge and Eddie Sutherland at the Shi-Huen dojo. The Shi-Huen instructors taught the 54 basic throwing techniques of Jigoro Kano Sensei, and the learning was self-defense-, rather than sport-based. sensei_leon'
There were several reasons Sensei Pantanowitz took up the martial arts: As a Jewish child in the Diaspora he found himself involved in street fights on more than one occasion; he was small of stature; he craved mental stimulation and enjoyed individual physical challenges, as opposed to team sports.
Sensei trained at the Shi-Huen until 1964 and earned the rank of Second Dan.
In January of 1961 Sensei married his wife, Norma and in 1962 finished his Bachelors of Science degree in Pharmacology. In 1963 he completed his BSC Honn. In 1964 Sensei was offered a position starting a pharmacy school at the University of Western Cape in Bellville. It was a great challenge and demanded that he move to Capetown, but it also left him time for research and he was able to complete his Master’s degree in Pharmacology (MSC).
When Sensei arrived in Capetown he looked for a Judo dojo, but instead found a karate club headed by Hugh St. John Thomson. The group learned Kyokushin Kai by looking at illustrations in books and with the help of sailors passing through who had studied in the Orient. Eventually the club switched to Shotokan.Despite the newness of it all, Sensei was impressed with the hard effort, the enthusiasm and the seriousness of the students and he decided to dedicate himself to karate.
In 1966 Sensei Thomson brought Sensei Taiji Kase (6th Dan) and Sensei Hiroshi Shirai (5th Dan) from Japan. They worked with the group for six months, and before they went back to Japan, on September 1st, 1966, they awarded Sensei Pantanowitz his 1st Dan in Shotokan. Toward the end of this visit, differences of opinion arose between Sensei Thomson and his Japanese instructors and he severed his connections with them.
The students sent Sensei Thomson to Japan to find a new style. There they met Sensei James Rousseau, who was also from South Africa, and together they visited and explored various arts. To their great luck they visited the Yoyogi dojo and met Sensei Morio Higaonna, undoubtedly the best Goju-Ryu practitioner in the world. Together they decided to open a Goju-Ryu center in South Africa with Sensei Higaonna at its head. When they returned they began to teach Goju-Ryu, and thus Sensei Pantanowitz was introduced to his new style.
On February 27th, 1972, Sensei, Norma and their three children made aliya to Israel. “It was a difficult decision to move to a new country and start life all over again,” says Sensei, “but the persistence and focused mentality which are integral parts of the martial arts helped in actualizing the decision.” The Pantanowitz family attended ulpan (intensive Hebrew language studies) at the Beit Goldmintz Absorption Center in Netanya.
Sensei practiced karate for the first time on the shores of the Mediterranean. Other people noticed him training and became interested. Soon there was a group practicing on the beach. Word spread, and Sensei met up with other serious karate practitioners in Israel. From this was born the “Israeli Karate Federation,” an organization which continues to flourish today, sponsoring tournaments and serving as the official Israeli branch of the World Union of Karate Organizations (WUKO).
In May of 1972 Sensei Pantanowitz traveled to the 2nd WUKO World Championships in Paris. It was there that he met Sensei Morio Higaonna for the first time. He recalled:“Sensei Higaonna was on his way to teach in South Africa and was to meet up with the South Africans and travel back with them. They had not booked a hotel room for him and at the end of the first evening’s competition I noticed Sensei standing outside of the stadium waiting. I approached him and soon discovered he had no place to sleep that night. I invited Sensei to share my very modest hotel room in Pigalle. He accepted but insisted that he would sleep on the floor, while I was supposed to sleep in the bed. After sometime I managed to persuade him that either I slept on the floor or that we share the bed. Sensei agreed to the compromise. The bed was fairly large but had a very soft mattress and broken springs. Sensei being heavier than me sank deep into the bed leaving me perched up, clinging to the frame so as not to disturb him.
Before going to sleep, Sensei asked me to do some basic punching, which he blocked with a hike-uke so powerful that I landed on my back twice! I knew then that I was privileged to be in the presence of the world’s doyen of karate. I promised myself then and there, that at the first opportunity I would visit and train with Sensei in Japan. This dream was realized in August 1974, when I visited Sensei and trained for 3 weeks at Yoyogi dojo and two weeks at a gasshuku held in Okinawa.”
In 1975 Sensei Higaonna visited South Africa and decided to sever his relationship with Sensei Thomson. Sensei Pantanowitz received notice of this from Sensei Thomson at the beginning of 1976 and sent two letters to Sensei Higaonna, requesting an explain for this decision, and to clarify his standing in the organization. Unfortunately, a foreign student had taken over the secretarial duties for international correspondence and Sensei Higaonna never received the letters. Sensei Pantanowitz had no choice but to continue his association with the South African branch. This association continued until 1984, at which point Sensei Pantanowitz began to feel uncomfortable with changes that Sensei Thomson was making in the kata and in the overall spirit of the style. After consulting with his senior students, Sensei Pantanowitz once again made contact with Sensei Higaonna and in August, 1984 traveled to Okinawa to train with him.
In 1985 Sensei Pantanowitz invited Sensei Higaonna to visit Israel. He returned to visit again in 1986, ’87, ’88, ’92, ’94, ’96 and for the Karate-Do Israel’s 30th anniversary celebration in 2002. Sensei Pantanowitz visited Okinawa for extended periods of training ten times and trained with Sensei Higaonna on 34 occasions.
Respected worldwide as an international judge, Sensei Pantanowitz served in the capacity of judge-referee at 46 international competitions for over 30 years. He coached the Israeli national team and taught karate certification courses for the Israeli Ministry of Education through Tel Aviv University and the Wingate Institute.
Sensei Pantanowitz kept up a rigorous training schedule, striving to perfect his art. He was an inspiration to the thousands of students who trained under him. After his humble beginnings on a Netanya beach he supervised and guided seven dojo in Israel, and traveled around the world to teach and inspire new generations.
Sensei Pantanowitz passed away in October, 2006 at the age of 67. His Netanya IOGKF honbu dojo and affiliate dojos throughout Israel continue to flourish under the leadership of the teachers whom he encouraged and inspired in his lifetime. His legacy lives on in his students.