An early-November alert by the FBI about threats to tristate-area synagogues was yet another reminder of the need for constant vigilance. The Chabad of West Hempstead has been training congregants in self-defense and active-shooter drills in case those skills and procedures are ever needed.
Avi Abraham, a martial arts expert and the chief instructor of the New York Self Defense Academy, directs the training. Abraham is a former Israeli soldier, and has been teaching people how to defend themselves for over two decades.
While self-defense may seem extreme to some, Abraham and the Chabad’s congregants are agree that the training is needed and appreciated. “Every time people come in and out of the synagogue, we get so many thank yous,” said Rachel Flam, who, along with her husband, Seth Speiser, oversee security at the facility. “It’s really nice when people say, ‘Thank you for protecting me and my family.’”
The fact that Jews are the most often targeted victims of religiously motivated hate crimes, Speiser said, is proof that congregants must be prepared, and the best reason for them to be proactive and train for a possible attack instead of being reactive. “It’s inevitable that something is going to happen to someone in the Jewish community,” he said. “We would rather it not happen to us, but if it does, we train to mitigate the attack.”
Several years ago, Speiser said, many congregants were opposed to training a security team to protect the Chabad. Now, he said, more and more congregants realize that as attacks continue, the need for defense increases.
The training consists of self-defense, active-shooter drills, weapons defense, and more. Abraham said that the basic course — Community Emergency Response Training, or CERT — is approved by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. He offers more detailed training as well. “We give them ways to defend other people,” Abraham said. “We do simulations — if someone is stabbing someone else, what do you do? We simulate different active-shooter trainings, or maybe the terrorist has a secondary weapon or an explosive. It’s a very intense program.”
An expert in krav maga, a martial art developed by the Israeli Defense Forces, Abraham said he had to engage and disarm an enemy several times in the military and as a civilian. He estimates he has trained as many as 15,000 people in self-defense, and said that the mental aspect of training is especially difficult for some to master.
“We start with aggression and how to be in a different mindset,” Abraham explained. “Once the attacker comes in shooting a gun, it’s very loud. They have to learn to deal with extreme scenarios and work under pressure. We yell and scream so they understand this is like the real thing. They have to go from 0 to 100 and have controlled aggression. Not everybody can do these things.”
An important aspect of the training, Flam said, is realizing there is a need for the training. Some people, she added, tend to become complacent, and forget the need for constant vigilance.
“It’s called optimism bias,” Flam said. “People think, it won’t happen to me. But what we’ve experienced in the past five years proves the need to be vigilant, not only right after an attack. There’s always terror out there. People forget. We are protecting all year round and not waiting for an attack to happen.”
Chabad of West Hempstead’s security team works in shifts to protect the congregants. They stand outside in extreme heat and cold, Flam said, because it’s worth the hardship to provide security.
“There’s always a need for more people,” she said. “It’s not an easy thing to do. We have a great team. We’re out in 100-degree heat and 18-degree cold, freezing our toes off.”
Abraham, a highly regarded security expert who receives constant alerts on possible threats, said he was aware that some people don’t believe that preparing for an attack is necessary, but he steers clear of philosophical debates about preparedness. He simply urges awareness.
“Our goal is to save lives,” he said. “My goal, my job, is to try to take control and prevent people from dying. The more people who are trained, the more lives will be saved. It’s as simple as that. We do the best we can do because the bad guys, their mindset is to kill as many people as possible. Our goal is to defend as many people as possible.”