Last night I watched as the latest group of trainees graduated from the Legion Self-Defense program. After nine months of intense training, participants from Legion’s four New York chapters in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the North and South Shore of Long Island came together to share their thoughts on the journey they began last fall. As a graduate of Legion’s Oceanside chapter and a leader of the newest Great Neck chapter, I can attest to the life changing experience that comes from dedicating oneself to self-defense training. This is only part of the program. The graduation ceremony serves as a bonding experience that lets you look back at the events that unfolded over the nine months – events that served as motivation, fueling the current graduating class and also inspiring our next cohort beginning in the fall.
Each new Legion class begins with one common understanding – the world is not loving Jews any more than it did yesterday. In the last nine months, the safety of Jews worldwide has continued to trend downward. According to the ADL, assaults against Jews were up 55% in New York, and 105% nationwide, for a total of 879 incidents in 2018. According to a report from the NYPD last week, there has already been an 83% increase in hate crimes so far in 2019.
Besides the physical attacks, the last nine months have also brought an alarming increase in anti-semitic rhetoric. Throughout the year, a few notorious American politicians have taken turns bashing Israel, often using anti-semitic dog whistles that put the spotlight on us both institutionally, and individually. Failing to respond to these attacks would set a dangerous precedent signaling the Jewish people are “ok” with, or at least resigned to this rhetoric and that we are incapable of defending themselves. This invites further attempts to tear us down and instill fear in our people. But when we speak out and stand up to the slander, our very responses also become front page news and keep Jews front and center, prone to further manipulation. This has created a win-win situation for those who seek to use the Jewish people as a perpetual scapegoat.
If this bothers you and keeps you up at night, you might ask yourself, “What have I done in response?” Sounding the alarm via social media does very little. That alarm can ring all day long but it is not going to make you any safer. You may as well be hitting the snooze button because these negative forces are not backing down in the face of our shared posts and “likes” on social media. Violence has been coming for a long time, and in the nine months since Legion’s latest class began training, violence was here.
That violence hit hard late last October when eleven Jews were killed at worship in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. After the attack, Legion received calls and emails from all over the United States from communities wanting to know more about our program and what they should be doing to keep their families safe. The fears of millions of Jews became reality.
As other terror attacks against our communities were thwarted, many settled back into “normal” life, hoping that the worst was behind us. But attacks against individual Jews continued to mount. In December, after police arrested a man planning a terror attack against a synagogue in Toledo, Ohio, how many were jolted into action by this close call and how many missed the story completely? Did you vow to prepare yourself and take active steps to do so or did you settle for talking about the issue until it was once again out of mind, shrugging off the feeling of urgency along with the next news cycle? After the Chabad of Poway outside of San Diego was attacked by an active shooter in April, were you sufficiently convinced then that anti-semitic violence was knocking at your door or were you still in denial?
After each of these attacks, our latest Legion cohort and graduates reacted the same way every time, by showing up to train every week with renewed determination. Week after week we took that fear of the unknown and traded it in for active preparation. We train to become more comfortable in the most uncomfortable of positions so that if the worst comes, we can protect our loved ones rather than looking to the next guy for help. James Shaw, the hero of the 2018 shooting at a Nashville Waffle House, said after the attack, “When he came in, I distinctively remember thinking that he is going to have to work for this kill.I had a chance to stop him and thankfully I stopped him.” By signing up for Legion, individuals acknowledge that the world can be a scary place, but the best way to handle it is to train and build your own skills and confidence.
At Legion, no one is looking for confrontation but we understand the bully mentality. Even children know that it is those who are perceived as being weak who are attacked at will. When the weak fight back, they send the message to the bully that is no longer “safe” to continue with their attacks. This is why we know that the only way to break this cycle is by changing the perception of weakness and creating deterrence. If the Jewish people want to reduce the attacks against them, we need to break the culture of fear and passivity that pervades our community.
Many in the Jewish community have changed their thinking and have sought out ways to protect their loved ones. Others have chosen to remain defeatists, pessimistic about the difference that training can make. For these people, the existence of bad men with guns is enough to throw their hands up in defeat. They deny the value of situational awareness, active shooter defense, and physical training. Ask any of the Legion graduates about the difference both physically and mentally that they have undergone over these nine months. You will not find a single one who denies that their self-confidence has grown by leaps and bounds from day one.
From lamb to lion, the Legion training is designed to make sure that even the most timid of us will grow to a point where we are no longer walking around with a victim mentality. If you can’t find the importance in training for yourself and your family, how can you expect the random stranger on the street to come to your rescue? Not every terror attack ends with a hero like Oscar Stewart, the 51 year old unarmed Jewish combat vet who charged at the Poway shooter and scared him into fleeing the scene. We can’t rely on others, but we do have the power to train ourselves to be better prepared. Acknowledging this is the first step to ridding ourselves of the fear that makes us easy targets, and can only happen one individual at a time.
It is also by the initiative of the individual that Legion continues to grow. Last year, Legion expanded from its inaugural chapter in Manhattan to Brooklyn and Oceanside, Long Island. This year we expanded to Great Neck, Long Island and West Hartford, Connecticut. West Hartford’s chapter began when one man, Daniel Gottfried, approached the Legion leadership team about expanding out of New York. He found a martial arts school that could accommodate our style, and the thirty cadets who were interested in training. The overwhelming success that Daniel and his team have achieved in Hartford has set the stage for another individual, Michael Gershfeld, to bring a new chapter to Westchester, New York this upcoming fall. The application process is currently underway for all six locations. A third individual, U.S. Army veteran Sidney Stein, is currently working to bring Legion to the Chicago area. With individuals currently showing interest in California, Pennsylvania, Florida, and New Jersey, Legion will soon be training Jews in self-defense across the country.
Slowly but surely, the Jewish people are realizing that our fears will not go away on their own. We need to confront these fears by being proactive in creating deterrence, and being prepared for the worst. Looking at the several hundred individuals who have graduated Legion, it is clear that we are moving in the right direction.
If you have ever been nervous to take the subway alone – if you have ever been scared to cross the street at night – or if you have ever been afraid to walk from your car to the front door, what are you waiting for? Why have you been putting off your own peace of mind as if it is not an important investment? In this day and age when we insure everything from our phones to our vape pens, how can we afford to not “insure” ourselves and our families by preparing for the violence that exists in the world? This change in mentality can only come from within, because as the founder of the original Jewish Legion that fought in the first world war Ze’ev Jabotinsky once said, “There is simply no solace, except in your own strength.”