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Facing Unprecedented Anti-Semitic Attacks, New York Jews Are Learning To Fight Back—Literally

Students at a Legion class in Marine Park get ready to jab. Matt Katz / WNYC

The wave of anti-Semitic violence in the New York region is prompting some Jews to take matters into their own fists. 

Legion, a New York-based nonprofit that trains Jews in self-defense, is growing in popularity and planning to expand in the wake of last month’s deadly shooting at the Jersey City kosher market and machete attack at a rabbi’s house in Monsey.

“Jews are the people of the book—and the sword,” said Arielle Mogil, Legion’s vice president of operations. 

Arielle Mogil works with a student wearing a "From Strength Comes Freedom" t-shirt. Matt Katz / WNYC

Legion draws a range of Jews, of all ages and degrees of religiosity, who believe that Jews need to protect themselves—because no one else will. At a Legion training session at Brooklyn Mixed Martial Arts gym in Marine Park on Tuesday night, about two dozen men and women sparred and sweated, jumped and jostled. They wore black t-shirts adorned with a white Star of David and these words written in both Hebrew and English: “From Strength Comes Freedom.” 

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“It’s the idea that we’re not going to be sheep; we’re going to be lions,” said Mogil, before she put on gloves and sparred with an Orthodox Jewish woman wearing a modest long dress. “We’re gonna train and learn how to defend ourselves so people won’t come after us anymore. That strength will give us the freedom.”

At Legion's self-defense class, a woman in modest dress practices her sparring form. Matt Katz / WNYC

Legion shares its name with the battalions of Jews who fought for the British Army in Palestine during World War I. Today’s Legion Jews believe that despite promises of stepped up police protection at synagogues and in Jewish neighborhoods, no one else can really keep them safe—so they must do it themselves. 

Citywide, anti-Semitic hate crimes went up 26 percent in 2019, according to the NYPD, and in heavily Hasidic neighborhoods like Crown Heights—where Jews are easily identifiable—Jews have been a target of increased harassment and attacks for about two years now. The news of these incidents, caught on surveillance cameras and documented by Shomrim, the Jewish neighborhood watch group, is what drew many Jews to Legion.

Jacob Gerlitz, a father of seven, decided to train with Legion after watching a video of an elderly Jewish man getting punched and kicked on the sidewalk in Brooklyn, in broad daylight. “That sounds like something out of Germany, ’39, yet it was Brooklyn, 2019,” he said. “I’m not trying to be a hero, but just if something happens—I could do something.”

Legion has six chapters in the New York area, and the next is being set up in Crown Heights, perhaps the epicenter of anti-Semitic violence in the United States, with separate male and female classes. More chapters are planned elsewhere around the country. Muslim Americans have created similar programs, like this self-defense workshop for women in the wake of Islamophobia stirred during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Legion students are accepted to the program after a background check and one-on-one interview. They take a nine-month introductory course that couples various martial arts disciplines with sessions run by former law enforcement officers on situational awareness for walking the streets, basic First Aid practices, and how to respond to active shooters. Since Legion’s inception four years ago, about 300 people have graduated. 

Terry Gold, a Legion coach who is Jewish and the owner of Brooklyn Mixed Martial Arts, said it’s about building a Jewish army. “If you’re a badass, you’re a badass, it doesn’t matter who you are—and we’re teaching you how to be a badass and defend yourself,” he said.

Sparring during a Legion self-defense class. Matt Katz / WNYC

After Tuesday’s class, Manashe, who faced anti-Semitism as a child in Uzbekistan and was shocked to learn that the same kind of biases exist in the United States, addressed his classmates about why he became a part of Legion. 

“I have three kids now, and when we walk in the streets we’re definitely looking Jewish, and I don’t want to be the target,” he said. 

“And if I am, I’ll beat them up.”

His community of fellow Legion members laughed. The laughter is part of the point, so it’s no longer taboo among American Jews to kick some ass.

“Up to this point anti-Semitism has been that swastika on the college campus or someone calling someone a ‘dirty Jew,” said Meredith Weiss, a Legion co-founder. “And when you go beyond words, it’s a whole different ball game.”

Matt Katz is a reporter at WNYC News covering immigration, hate, and security. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattkatz00.

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