Two assailants, armed with several weapons, pushed through the doors at Anshei Shalom in West Hempstead on the morning of June 16. Some congregants headed for cover under the pews and behind chairs, while others stormed the door to wrestle the attackers to the ground.
The exercise was part of the synagogue’s self-defense training. The play-acting assailants, armed with plastic guns, knives and grenades, were members of Active Krav Maga, an organization that provides combat and self-defense training.
“It’s important for all of us to be prepared for the worst,” said Mike Sigal, manager of security at Anshei Shalom. “By staying prepared, we have a better chance of protecting our children, our grandkids and anyone else at our synagogue. Unfortunately, it’s the world we live in today.”
With the increase of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States, such as the shooting at Chabad of Poway in California earlier this year and last year’s attack on Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue, members of the Jewish community in West Hempstead wanted to learn how to defend themselves. Congregants from several synagogues, including the Chabad of West Hempstead and Young Israel of West Hempstead, were taught how to take down attackers, remove their weapons and bind them with zip ties.
“Fortunately, we haven’t had any incidents here,” said Sigal, adding that the synagogue has held self-defense training sessions for the past three years. “But we have a lot of volunteers that are active in making sure we’re in a safe environment.”
According to the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the 1,564 religion-based crimes reported in 2017 were the second-highest number ever, surpassed only by the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. About 20 percent of hate crimes targeted people because of their religion, and 60 percent were focused on race or ethnicity. Rachel Flam, one of the participants in the June 16 exercise, said the uptick in attacks is why she got involved in self-defense training at the Chabad of West Hempstead.
“It was grueling. It was tough. But it was satisfying,” said Flam. “We know and understand that anti-Semitism and hate crimes in general are on the rise. It’s very important that not only Jews learn to protect themselves, but people of all faiths as well.”
Flam’s husband, Seth Speiser, one of the team leaders for self-defense training at the synagogue, said that they hold training sessions regularly, and that it’s important to be prepared for any emergency situation.
“It’s all about staying vigilant and reactive,” Speiser said. “The more reflexive action that we can take, the more we minimize the damage.”
Anshei Shalom leaders said they hoped to continue building on safety measures. “This is our first time training with the Active Krav Maga, but we try to find different ways to train our congregants,” said Yaakov Farkash, one of the team leaders for self-defense training.
Avi Abraham, a member of Active Krav Maga, said the groups had a 98 percent chance of protecting all congregants. The 2 percent chance of failure, he said, was if congregants forgot to check disabled attackers’ pockets for additional weapons. “Checking pockets can make all the difference,” Abraham told the participants. “I would feel very safe if I were a member of this congregation.”
Flam’s advice for people facing an emergency situation is to be fearless, and to remember whom you are fighting for. “Go down fighting, because you’re fighting to save lives,” Flam said.