By Jeffrey F. Barken/JNS.org
“Mike Tyson once said, ‘Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face,’” Ron Miller, a prospective member of the Legion, New York’s first self-defense and counter-terrorism training program for members of the Jewish community, says. Though spoken with humor, Miller’s allusion to the famed boxer’s words of wisdom reflects the angst that many Jews feel today.
The Legion is currently training a group of cadets ages 22-57. Following a careful screening process, 48 individuals were selected out of 129 applicants to join the inaugural class that began last October. The group meets twice a week for intensive physical conditioning led by world-class instructors and former Marines. The Legion also assembles monthly for a session of classroom learning, discussing Jewish culture and history. Thirty-eight cadets have survived the rigorous training to date, and they are now on track to complete the program this summer.
“I think we all have to be ready,” Miller says, explaining his reason for attending the cadet recruitment and social event held at the Renaissance Hotel in Manhattan on June 8. The professional banker and father of two first learned of the Legion when he met the program’s charismatic founder, Jon Loew, at his local gym. Having missed the first deadline to sign up, Miller was eager to engage.
Standing on a chair, Loew addresses the lively gathering. His bellowing voice requires no microphone. He directs the crowd’s attention to a slideshow playing on overhead monitors. “It all begins in Judea,” Loew says, pointing to a map of the Middle East. “If you call yourself a Jew, that’s where you’re from.”
Next, Loew describes the exile of the Jews in the wake of the Roman conquest of Judea in 135 CE. “Since then, Jews have found acceptance in strange lands, but forever remain the outsider,” he says. The subsequent slide presents a sinusoidal graph that establishes a timeline by correlating positive and devastating events in Jewish history with the apex and nadir of the continuous waves.
“This is a list of the countries we’ve been kicked out of,” Loew says in a preface to the follow-up slide. “In some places, we’ve been kicked out and invited back three or four times. I don’t know about you, but when I get kicked out of a bar, I don’t go back.”
The undulating graph offers the Legion’s argument for instilling preparedness among Jewish communities. Loew likens the cyclical history represented by the image to that of a stock chart, plotting a boom and bust cycle over the course of millennia. “Buy low, sell high?” he asks the audience for proverbial investing advice. A montage of video clips demonstrating the increased violence directed toward Jews worldwide ensues. When the video finishes playing, Loew asks, “Who thinks it’s a good time to buy stock [in Judaism]?”
After the dramatic presentation, Loew shifts gears to the facts and figures.
“Jews are three times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime, and 1 billion people worldwide are anti-Semitic,” Loew says.
“Stats don’t lie,” he adds.
The Legion’s motto, “From strength comes freedom,” underscores the group’s primary mission to restore deterrents. Loew suggests that Jewish community leaders have failed to prepare adequately for threats. “Their answer is to hire bodyguards for themselves,” he says.
“There’s not going to be a Holocaust in the United States,” Loew predicts, though he is wary of increased chaos and an overwhelmed police force. “Cell phones gave everyone the excuse not to help,” he says, citing shocking stabbings during rush hour on the New York City subway system. The bottom line, he says, is that Jews should learn how to protect themselves.
Additional selling points for the program include: Why not get in shape? Why not seize the opportunity to learn from some of the best professional self-defense instructors in the business? And why not connect with a lively community in the process?
The Legion’s training course costs $1,000, and the group offers up to $400 in tuition reimbursement to anyone who completes the training.
Indeed, the energetic and dynamic crowd gathered at the Renaissance Hotel reflects the Legion’s promise.
“It’s not your average Jewish group,” Caroline Ledgin, an insurance broker, documentary filmmaker, and graduate of the Legion’s cadet program, says. Part Israeli, Ledgin says she has an Israeli mindset about security.
“American Jews need to get on it!” she warns. “I was already into fitness, but I appreciated the community aspect and the fact that other people are relating to the awareness that the world is becoming a more dangerous place.”
Ledgin says the course has helped her learn more about herself.
“I knew I was strong, I knew I could fight,” she says, “but the first effect of the training was actually to make me realize how vulnerable I was.”
Statistics compiled by an independent survey group demonstrate that many of Ledgin’s comrades share her impressions: 88 percent of the Legion’s cadets are enjoying the training more than they expected; 66% say training is tough and 33% say it’s the hardest they’ve ever experienced; 84 percent report a change in their physical appearance and ability; 90 percent are confident they can defend themselves; 90 percent are confident they can help in an emergency situation; 96 percent report that they are more aware of their surroundings; and 77 percent say they will continue training after their nine-month basic training.
“Your skills are enhanced as you become more aware,” Ledgin says.
Despite its focus on self-defense training for Jews, the Legion is open to receiving members of all faiths into its ranks. “Jews are training alongside Muslims and Christians,” Loew says, noting religious communities’ mutual concern for public safety and a general interest in promoting peace.
Nearly 200 people attended the Legion’s June 8 event. “Approximately 67 [participants] requested applications and about 40 people in the room were already either students or volunteers for the organization. That means about 50 percent of the people in the room who could have applied for our training did so,” Loew says.
Josh Krongelby, a software programmer who survived the intense training, says he left feeling “a lot more confident walking on the street.”