NY Jews unnerved by spike in antisemitism and raucous protests take to krav maga for self-defense


(New York Jewish Week) — Last year, as antisemitism spiked in New York City after Oct. 7, occupational therapist Ruth Peer began to hear about troubling incidents from the Jewish children she works with in Crown Heights. 

In one case, an elementary school-age patient told Peer that she was riding with her father when a passerby approached the car and began shouting at them — an incident the child took as antisemitic. Stories like that convinced Peer, who is also Jewish, that such incidents were “becoming super-prevalent” in the city — and that she needed to take action. 

“It’s important for me, being Jewish and a woman, to be able to show other people that we can stand up for ourselves,” said Peer, 27, who lives in Midwood, Brooklyn. “That we have to stand up for ourselves and that we have the right to do so.”

Peer enrolled in a krav maga course — one of a new crop of students who have swelled the ranks of the Israeli self-defense classes in the city in the months following Oct. 7. Other participants and organizers said the Hamas attack and spike in antisemitism had inspired them to train and seek community with others who feared for their security. Instructors have added lessons to prepare participants for threats on the streets and are preparing to offer courses on college campuses. 

“Some of those people are really beginning to say, ‘All right, we used to go to soccer, but now we have to go to krav maga,’” said Eve Gold, co-owner of the Krav Maga Federation, a martial arts school on Manhattan’s West 25th Street. “The fact that those are the people training now — there’s the answer to what happened after Oct. 7.”

Krav maga, Hebrew for “contact combat,” was developed in the mid-20th century and has been used by the Israel Defense Forces since the military’s beginnings. It has become popular worldwide for its focus on using the body’s natural reactions to neutralize an assault.

Now, more Jews in New York City are gravitating toward the discipline. Two krav maga groups focused on serving Jews — Legion Self Defense and Guardian Self Defense — said they had seen a spike in interest in New York City following Oct. 7. A third group, Chai Self Defense, was set up after the Hamas attack.

Meredith Weiss, the co-founder of Legion, said demand had at least doubled following the attack on Israel. The six-month beginners’ course usually fills one class of 60 students, but this year Legion filled two, in addition to another course for more advanced students. Weiss estimated that at least 150 students were training in New York City’s Legion programs in May, and applications for the beginners’ course starting next October have tripled compared to before Oct. 7. 

Legion is also launching a new two-month course in the New York area for college students who are home for the summer. And in the fall, it will open its first campus chapters, at Syracuse University and for students at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

In Guardian’s case, membership in New York City jumped from around 45 people prior to Oct. 7 to 70 today. It also runs programs outside the city in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Nationwide, participation has increased from around 300 to 500 people, said instructor Raz Chen. The program aims to open an additional class in the city after the summer. Guardian was set up in 2019 by Joe Richards, a Jewish resident of Long Island.

Another program, Chai Self Defense, started on Staten Island in November. The founders, couple Lawrence and Erica Yakobzon, said they had considered opening a program in the borough after a spate of antisemitic attacks several years ago, but interest fizzled as the attacks waned. 

“Oct. 7 definitely revived the idea,” Lawrence Yakobzon said. Staten Island did not have any krav maga programs and the Yakobzons, both first-generation American Jews of Russian descent, decided to start the program after seeing demand from community members. Chai Self Defense’s classes take place twice a week and draw 25 to 30 people. Last month, Chai opened another branch in Midwood, Brooklyn. 

Instructor Raz Chen, center, at a Guardian Self Defense Krav Maga class in the basement of a Manhattan synagogue, May 21, 2024. (Luke Tress)

Instructor Raz Chen, center, at a Guardian Self Defense Krav Maga class in the basement of a Manhattan synagogue, May 21, 2024. (Luke Tress)

At the Guardian training session that Peer attended, participants said Oct. 7 and antisemitism in New York were major motivators.

“Oct. 7 was a very, very big wakeup call, even for people that don’t get these wakeup calls,” said Yehuda Wexler, a participant in Chen’s class from Brooklyn who started training in krav maga in 2020, after a spate of attacks on Jews during Hanukkah 2019.

In at least one case, a krav maga studio has itself become a target. Krav Maga Experts, an Israeli-run school on the Upper West Side, was put on a list of Israeli businesses to boycott compiled by students at Columbia University. Founder Tsahi Shemesh believes fewer non-Jews have attended his classes as a result. 

“No one’s on the fence,” he said. “Anyone here knows what this place stands for.”

The students’ profile has also changed since Oct. 7, Weiss said. In Manhattan, before the war, most students were in their 20s or 30s, but in recent months, more older adults and even entire families have come in for training, especially since pro-Palestinian college student encampments put some Jews on edge, she said.

“There’s a more 30s-, 40s-, 50s-type demographic because they’ve seen it spill out onto the streets,” Weiss said. “People don’t want to feel vulnerable.”

Trainers said they had not changed their core curriculum since Oct. 7 but had added new lessons to deal with aggressive protesters and other threats. Chen said he has focused more on dealing with multiple attackers, since anti-Israel protesters tend to move in groups. At Legion, organizers have added material on how to respond to active shooters and knife defense, and allowed beginners to access more advanced seminars, such as classes on multiple attackers, Gold said.

Peer said that before she started krav maga, she had trained in kickboxing for four years. As antisemitism rose, she wanted to get back into training, and chose krav maga due to its focus on practical self-defense. She is open about her Jewish identity, wearing a hand-shaped hamsa charm and a necklace in support of hostages in Gaza, and is concerned about threats from antisemites on the subway. The classes and her increased awareness make her feel safer, she said.

“It’s also just being able to stop the fight before it happens. It definitely makes me feel secure,” she said.

The classes tend to focus on awareness, mindset and avoiding conflict as much as the no-holds-barred strikes krav maga is known for. 

At the Guardian class, Chen laid out his “ABC” approach to conflict: avoid, set boundaries and — as a last resort — combat. 

“A is the best option for us,” Chen, a krav maga champion competitor in Israel and former instructor for the IDF, told the class of 20.

A Guardian Self Defense Krav Maga class in the basement of a Manhattan synagogue, May 21, 2024. (Luke Tress)

A Guardian Self Defense Krav Maga class in the basement of a Manhattan synagogue, May 21, 2024. (Luke Tress)

The class started with the students running, shuffling and jogging backward around the blue and red mats, criss-crossing in front of each other and changing directions to practice situational awareness, while keeping their hands up in a defensive stance. The students then played a game, attempting to tag each other’s backs while dashing around the mat.

“You’re aware of the space. You’re not one of those people walking around, looking down at their phone,” Chen told the class. Guardian and Legion both teach students to not wear headphones while on the streets to remain aware of their surroundings.

The students then practiced setting physical and verbal boundaries by moving around the mat with their hands up and shouting “Stop!” in response to prompts from Chen and a second instructor, Carlos Gutierrez.

“They use their body language and their voice to assert their boundaries and make the other person understand that they are a hard target,” Chen said in an interview.

The martial art incorporates techniques from different disciplines — such as Brazilian jiu jitsu — and aims to use the body’s natural reactions to neutralize an assault with aggressive counter-attacks against an opponent’s most vulnerable points, such as strikes to the eyes or groin. At the class, two men exchanged blows, one of them on his back, the other standing over him, raining down punches.

The man on the ground struck back, then grabbed his attacker’s ankles, brought his knees to his chest and pushed his legs outward, sweeping his opponent to the floor.

“Even in the worst-case scenario there’s always a way out,” Chen told the students. “There’s always a solution.”

Both Guardian and Legion said participants came from a wide array of Jewish backgrounds, but Gold believes most new participants at Legion are relatively unobservant religiously. Chai Self Defense’s Staten Island program is mostly secular Jews, while the Brooklyn branch is around half Modern Orthodox and half secular, Lawrence Yakobzon estimates. 

Around a dozen Guardian students are also volunteers with the Community Security Service, a nonprofit that trains Jews to protect synagogues and events.

Participants in the programs have increasingly connected outside of classes since the start of the war, with Legion organizing events such as Shabbat get-togethers and bar nights. Some participants feel isolated from non-Jewish colleagues who can’t relate to their feelings of insecurity on the streets, Weiss said.

“You kind of build relationships with people and you build partners who you spar with,” Peer said, adding that members tend to text each other outside of class. “Our shared identity of being Jewish really is helpful. We always have something to talk about.”

Peer said she put some of the lessons to use “all the time” — though not in hand-to-hand combat.

“I’m always definitely more aware of my surroundings. I don’t really wear headphones anymore on the train, I’m always very aware of who’s walking behind me,” she said. 

But the classes do prepare students to respond to physical attacks. Chen illustrated his lesson by describing an attack days earlier on an Israeli man who was thrown to the ground and kicked while he was down in Belgium.

“He tried to kick, but he didn’t turn” to keep facing his attacker, Chen said.

Some students have put their training to use on the streets. Weiss recalled a situation where the Legion students refused to accept fliers for a pro-Palestinian rally on the subway and the activists handing them out became verbally aggressive. The students remained calm, but braced themselves for an escalation.

“They didn’t have that frozen or paralysis type of reaction,” Weiss said. “They were ready for whatever was going to happen until those subway doors opened.”