After Anti-Semitic Attacks, Jewish Community Learns To Fight Back

Jan 9, 2020
Originally published on January 9, 2020 1:23 pm

After attacks on Jewish communities in the New York area, participation has surged in a nonprofit organization, which trains Jews to protect themselves using traditional self-defense methods.

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The Jewish community in the New York area has been under threat. The anti-Semitic violence has prompted more security in Jewish neighborhoods and at synagogues. But for some, that is not enough, and they're taking matters into their own hands. From member station WNYC, Matt Katz has more.

MATT KATZ, BYLINE: It's a rainy night in Brooklyn, and everyone headed into this storefront gym for martial arts training is Jewish.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Cross - up, up, bang - at the belt. Let's go.

KATZ: This is the Brooklyn chapter for a growing nonprofit called Legion, a Jewish self-defense program that shares a name with the World War I Jewish battalions of the British Army. Legion's motto, written in Hebrew and English on the students' black T-shirts, alongside a white Star of David is...

ARIELLE MOGIL: From strength comes freedom.

KATZ: That's Arielle Mogil, vice president of operations at Legion.

MOGIL: It's the idea that we're not going to be sheep. We're going to be lions. We're going to train and learn how to defend ourselves so people won't come after us anymore. That strength will give us the freedom.

KATZ: The freedom to not be abused any longer, particularly in New York City, where anti-Semitic hate crimes went up 26% in 2019 according to police.

Jews just outside of the city have recently witnessed some of the most violent anti-Semitic attacks in American history - the deadly shooting at a kosher grocery store in Jersey City and an attack at a rabbi's home in Monsey.

MOGIL: Jews are the people of the book and the sword, and we're getting that back.

KATZ: Mogil then took off her shoes and got onto the mat, sparring with another Jewish woman who wore the kind of modest dress that has made Orthodox Jews obvious targets, though Legion also trains secular Jews.

For Terry Gold, a Jewish man and Legion coach who owns Brooklyn MMA where this chapter trains, it's about building what he calls an army of Jews.

TERRY GOLD: I mean, if you're a badass, it doesn't matter who you are. And we're teaching how to be a badass and defend yourself.

KATZ: The recent anti-Semitic attacks prompted a flood of interest from around the country to expand beyond Legion's six chapters. Students take a nine-month intro course that couples mixed martial arts with sessions run by former law enforcement officers on situational awareness for walking the streets, first aid and how to respond to active shooters.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Come on. There you go.

KATZ: The class I attended was intense. Sweat covered the mats. Jacob Gerlitz decided to train with Legion after watching one of the many highly circulated surveillance videos of an elderly Jewish man getting punched and kicked on the sidewalk in Brooklyn in broad daylight.

JACOB GERLITZ: I mean, that sounds like something out of Germany '39, yet it was Brooklyn 2019. I mean, I have kids. I've got seven kids. I'm not trying to be a hero. But just if something happens, I could do something.

KATZ: And that's what the leaders of Legion are hoping for - for Jews to not just say something when they're attacked but to do something in response.

For NPR News, I'm Matt Katz in Brooklyn.

(SOUNDBITE OF BATTLES' "AMBULANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.