RELIGION

Meet The Jewish Warriors Training To Fight Anti-Semites

Inside Legion, the non-profit organization training Jews to protect themselves

RELIGION
Photo Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
May 16, 2017 at 11:35 AM ET

Dozens of sweaty, panting people, most of them Jewish, gathered on a gym mat around the instructor. On the wall behind him there was an image that blended the Star of David and the face of a lion. It was the evening of May 1 — the end of the Israeli Memorial Day and beginning of its Independence Day — and the instructor, Matan Gavish, was giving his post-practice message. He spoke of his first commander in the Israel Defense Force (IDF), who threw himself on a grenade to save the rest of his soldiers during an operation in the Gaza Strip.

“What you’re doing here, believe it or not, strengthens those soldiers,” Gavish said. “Because knowing that there is a Jewish core outside of Israel that is training not to get beaten means that they’re not just stuck there on their own.”

Then Jon Loew, the founder of Legion, chimed in from the side. “Look around this room. This is probably the most people we’ve had on the mat at one time,” Loew said. “What’s the next-largest group of Jews training to fight in the United States after Legion. Maybe three people? We’ve got 65 people right here. So if you don’t know how important this is in the history of the Jewish people — think about that for a minute. Look at the people who are committed like you are. There’s nobody else doing this — that’s how much pressure is on us to keep doing this.”

Loew started this non-profit self-defense organization, in 2015, as he was noticing a rise in anti-Semitism in the U.S. The Anti-Defamation League reported there was a 21 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in 2014. In 2015, there was a 50 percent rise in assaults on Jewish people. Attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions have only continued to surge in the Trump era. “We did not start to build bunkers or gather up weaponry,” Loew told Vocativ. “We decided, let’s do something that’s a proportionate response and set up a program that will train young Jews and their friends who are not Jewish.”

Some members of Loew’s program are Christian and Muslim, he said, though he doesn’t ask. Everyone who applies goes through a two-month-long approval process that includes a background check and an in-person panel interview. The Legion wants to make sure none of its participants are training to potentially harm others. “We don’t want people who are radically pro- or anti- anything,” Loew said. “We want to keep people out of the program who might dislike Jews because they’re Jews, and we also want to keep Jews out of the program who dislike other people because they’re not Jews.”

The Legion provides a nine-month, twice-a-week class based in Manhattan. This September, the program is expanding to locations in Long Island and Brooklyn. Instructors teach a mix of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Krav Maga, a self-defense martial art developed by the Israeli Defense Forces. Krav Maga (Hebrew for “contact-combat”) emphasizes brutal efficiency over grace. It follows the IDF motto “strive for contact” and teaches to run toward aggression instead of away from it. Techniques target vulnerable areas like the groin, and some moves aim to cause permanent injury. Many IDF fighters, like Gavish, start Krav Maga training facilities once they’re done with their service.

“The American Jewish community played a big role in the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948, and the fruit of that labor created a robust nation fully able to defend itself, and a type of hardened Jew,” Loew said. “Now there’s a chance for those tough Jews in Israel to come back and help the American Jews get a little bit tougher… Some of them not-so-quickly admitted that it appeared to them that the Jews in America were kind of weak and easy targets.”

But the Legion doesn’t just teach how to avoid being a target. It also instills basic counter-terrorism tactics — first aid, responding to active shooters, detecting surveillance in your institution. To build the curriculum, the Legion board analyzed the threats that the Jewish community has encountered and may face in the future, and consulted former law enforcement intelligence and military professionals, asking them what skills civilians should know to be prepared for crisis situations. Then they stripped it down to what they believe the average person is capable of learning in a nine-month period.

The benefits of the class go beyond physical fitness and preparedness. Andrew Davidsburg, who is in his second year of Legion training, said he has found himself reacting differently in situations. During a recent first date he noticed a moving van rolling backwards down a hill after the movers neglected the parking brake. He sprinted, hopped in the driver’s seat, and pulled the brake. “You develop on-your-toes thinking when physical activity is involved,” Davidsburg said. “I call it a ‘Legion moment’ — the clarity of mind in a pressure situation.”

Davidsburg says he also attends for the cultural camaraderie. “I try to stay in touch with what goes on in the Jewish world. My family came from Germany in the 1940s. My grandfather had been placed in a concentration camp early on, but was able to leave with my grandmother and my father in 1940,” he said. “I attend synagogue occasionally, but I don’t have the same connection there as I do with Legion.”

“It’s not just a hobby. It’s a part of my identity now,” said Talia Meisel, who is about to complete the initial program. “You’re training as a group with the same core beliefs, independent of race, religion, or politics.” Meisel now feels more prepared to defend herself against both anti-Semitism and sexual harassment. “Whatever they’re dishing out is what they’re going to get back.”

And while this may be the biggest group of American Jews learning how to protect themselves, they’re well aware it’s nothing new. “We didn’t create some revolutionary idea,” Loew said. “This has been going on since the Greeks first attempted to suppress the Jewish uprising in ancient Judea. The story of Hanukkah is not about candles lasting eight days — it’s about the Maccabean Revolt against the Greek Empire. We’re not the first Jews to fight.”

The new season of DARK NET — an eight-part docuseries developed and produced by Vocativ — airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on SHOWTIME.