“See the dot?” the Israeli Defense Forces soldier in the video asks. “You’re gonna aim that at your target.” He is directing these words to a woman in traditional Orthodox garb, complete with a wig and long sleeves for modesty. The woman, who appears at least a foot shorter than the soldier, lowers her head and aims her gun at an unseen target on the wall. She stands a foot or two away from a table covered in a white doily, with more than half a dozen handguns and rifles sitting atop it. A number of men look on grinning and recording the action with their iPhones.
The video was taken at a self-defense workshop led by Cherev Gidon, whose website identifies it as an Israeli tactical defense company based in Pennsylvania. (The clip initially circulated on Facebook in a now-deleted post, but it is still available on YouTube.) Cherev Gidon has built something of a brand out of offering workshops to Jews looking to arm themselves after terror attacks, having offered similar workshops following the Tree of Life shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue last year.
The class is one of a number of self-defense workshops held in Rockland County, New York, home to Monsey, an enclave of Hasidic Jews — an insular subgroup of ultra-Orthodox Jews — about an hour away from New York City. Earlier this week, five people were hospitalized after a stabbing at a Monsey home during a Hanukkah celebration; one of the victims is still in critical condition.
A suspect, Grafton E. Thomas, has been arrested in connection with the attacks. Prosecutors have pointed to searches on Thomas’s phone, including for such terms as “why did Hitler hate the Jews” and “prominent companies founded by Jews in America,” as evidence that the attack was motivated by anti-Semitism.
In the context of a rising number of anti-Semitic attacks in the United States in general, the Hasidic community is still on high alert. “It was a very traumatic incident for Monsey. Everyone was on absolute lockdown,” says Devorah Waldman, a property manager at Monsey’s Yeshiva Chaim, a local religious institution. As a result, Rockland County police announced on Monday that it would be hiring a private security firm to help guard local synagogues and yeshivas in the area.
But that is not enough for many local Hasidic Jews, who have decided to arm themselves in response to what they view as a rising and imminent threat.”I would say my phone calls have doubled in the last three days,” most of which are from members of the Hasidic community, says Irene Vignola, owner of Rockland Indoor Shooting Education (RISE), a shooting range in Rockland County. Vignola says that about half of those requests are from synagogues looking to contract with RISE to provide private security, and half are from individuals looking to learn how to arm themselves.
Rockland County has a large Hasidic population — about 31% of the county is Jewish, according to the state. Vignola says that prior to the Monsey stabbing, about 40% of her clientele came from the Hasidic community, and that in the past she has even trained rabbis. Yet the community’s interest in learning how to arm itself is unlike anything she has ever seen before. “This is a very hush-hush community. Most people don’t like to talk [to outsiders] about what’s happening,” she says. “So the fact that they’re so afraid to the point that they’re willing to go outside the community to get training is kind of shocking, to say the least.”
As is the case in the secular community, the answer to what halakhah, or Jewish law, says about arming oneself in self-defense varies depending on who you ask. Though the Talmud prohibits Jews from going out on Shabbat (the day of rest for the Jewish people) with weaponry, proponents have pointed to the Torah’s principle of pikuach nefesh (the preservation of human life at all costs) in support of Jews arming themselves in self-defense. That said, there is extensive data to indicate that a firearm can make a home more dangerous, not less: Owning a gun has been linked to increased risk of dying by suicide, particularly for youth; one recent study found that residents of states with higher numbers of gun owners are more likely to be fatally shot by a family member or partner.
Some in the ultra-Orthodox community have vocally eschewed the call for residents to arm themselves in self-defense. “We must be wary of those who say that guns are the answer. From the time that haredi [ultra-Orthodox] children are very small, we learn to despise weapons,” Hasidic writer and Monsey resident Shimon Rolnitzky wrote in an article for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, adding “How is it that certain haredi Jews can be heard expressing support for the gun policies of the NRA for the safety of a community that despises ‘you shall live by the sword’?” In 2014, the Rabbinical Council of America, a national organization of Orthodox rabbis, issued a resolution stating that while it condoned “private American citizens owning or learning how to use [licensed] weapons or to engage in violent acts for justified purposes such as self-defense,” it also supported more stringent gun control measures and “restricting American citizens’ easy and unregulated access to weapons and ammunition.”
New York State’s gun laws are relatively strict compared to that of the rest of the country, and it is illegal to own and carry a handgun outside the home without a permit. Yet such regulations have not deterred members of the Hasidic community from arming themselves in response to recent anti-Semitic attacks, including the stabbing in Monsey and a shooting at a Kosher supermarket in Jersey City, where three people were killed. Shortly after the stabbing, a change.org petition circulated lobbying legislators in Rockland County to remove concealed carry permit restrictions, which has garnered more than 3,000 signatures.
Prior to the stabbing in Monsey, it would have been unheard of for a woman to learn how to shoot a gun, says Waldman. But that too has changed in the wake of a stabbing, with one popular meme circulating depicting a mother standing in front of a menorah with her three children, a gun tucked in her skirt waistband. “In Monsey it’s not accepted for a woman to be carrying a gun…[but] now it’s like, ‘If this is how she’ll feel safe, then no one will tell her otherwise,'” says Waldman, who does not own a gun but finds the trend of Jews arming themselves in self-defense “empowering.”
The clip of the Cherev Gidon workshop was posted on Facebook by Zev Oster, who identified himself to Rolling Stone via Facebook message as a jeweler and a longtime firearms owner. Though he declined to disclose the location of the workshop and insisted he had nothing to do with organizing the event (“I was simply there to listen and learn, nothing more,” he says), his post garnered a wide range of comments, with many expressing alarm at the lack of safety protocols displayed in the video, such as the woman keeping her finger on the trigger within extremely close proximity to spectators. “I was horrified….it looked like a home tupperware party for guns,” says one of the commenters on Oster’s post, Julie Globus, an attorney and founder of the blog Lost Messiah, which was created to spotlight corruption within the observant Jewish community.
The post was also disturbing due to the lack of apparent safety protocols displayed in the video, such as the woman keeping her finger on the trigger within extremely close proximity to spectators. Accompanying photos “show people holding firearms very inappropriately,” says Vignola. Such clips “make me afraid that people are taking these routes and not properly keeping themselves safe” in learning self-defense. (In response, Yonatan Stern, director of Cherev Gidon, told Rolling Stone that “the main priority of firearm safety is to insist people not put their finger on the trigger.” When asked why the woman in the video did, in fact, very clearly have her finger on the trigger, Stern said such things are common “when you’re dealing with beginners” who do not have “a perfect stance.”)
The clip is even more distressing in light of what Globus, the attorney, classifies as a violent “call to arms” within the Hasidic community following the stabbing. On social media, “you’re seeing the second amendment cited everywhere, you’re seeing, ‘We don’t want to sit there defenseless’ everywhere,” she says. In such posts, the desire to prevent another Holocaust is invoked by way of calling for armed self-defense.
Globus also says she has seen a great deal of violently racist rhetoric exhibited against African-Americans in particular (Thomas, the suspect in the Hanukkah stabbing, is black). One piece of audio that has circulated within the community makes this explicit, with an unidentified voice in Yiddish and English calling for Jews to go into a black church and “fucking rip the shit out of [it].” “Let’s start shooting, let the shooting begin. Let’s see who would win,” the voice says before using an offensive term for African-Americans.
When asked if self-defense workshops in private homes stokes panic and fear rather than curbing it, Oster was unrepentant. “Jews, just like everyone else, have the right to bear arms,” he says. “The panic and violence has been created by hate crimes, current assaults and a machete wielding terrorist, not innocent people looking to defend themselves.”
But the panic-stricken, pro-gun rhetoric circulating on social media is immensely concerning to those who believe that self-taught self-defense tactics are no form of self-defense at all. “It’s one of those things where no one is really thinking before they do anything because there’s so much chaos,” says Vignola. “[But] I don’t want to be going by somebody’s basement and a loose round goes off and I have my child next to me.”
Globus fears the call on the community to defend itself against anti-Semitic violence, is likely to only beget more violence. “The second you pull out a weapon, you’re opening up Pandora’s box,” she says.