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Isn’t it time to empower our youth?

It’s time to institute self-defense training in all Jewish institutions.

Pro-Israeli protesters at the “March Against Antisemitism” in London hold flags and placards in support of hostages taken by Hamas in Gaza, Nov. 26, 2023. Credit: Andy Soloman/Shutterstock.
Pro-Israeli protesters at the “March Against Antisemitism” in London hold flags and placards in support of hostages taken by Hamas in Gaza, Nov. 26, 2023. Credit: Andy Soloman/Shutterstock.
Dr. Alex Sternberg
Dr. Alex Sternberg
Dr. Alex Sternberg, a Jewish activist, is the author of Recipes From Auschwitz.

One of the most stirring and inspiring songs in the Siddur is “Lecha Dodi,” which we sing on Friday evenings to welcome the Sabbath. In it, Rabbi Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz, the 16th-century Kabbalist who composed the song, urges a downtrodden and dispirited Jewish nation to “shake off the dust and arise” and “Wake up. Wake up. Your light is coming. Rise up and shine.”

Five months after Oct 7, many of us find ourselves in need of such an exhortation to lift our spirits. I vividly remember the feeling of euphoria caused by Israel’s stunning victory in the 1967 Six-Day War. Oct. 7 produced precisely the opposite feeling.

I was a yeshiva student in 1967. We were quick to accept congratulations from our non-Jewish friends for Israel’s victory. We hoped that some of the newfound respect for Israel would be extended to us. I was a brown-belt karate student training in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville, one of the toughest in New York—we called it a ghetto back then. I was the only Orthodox Jewish student. When I arrived to train one evening, my sensei said of Israel, “Those boys over there sure kicked some a**.” He noted that the Israelis were unlike meek, soft and timid American Jews. He urged me to begin a training program to toughen up American Jewish kids. I took his suggestion to heart and established a self-defense karate program for yeshiva students. The program began in 1967 and I taught classes for over five decades.

Today, current events can make anyone depressed. We certainly don’t walk around with the air of confidence we had back then. The sheer magnitude of the Oct. 7 tragedy sapped the confidence of many. This attitude is bad not only for us but for our children as well.

Our children were fortunate enough to have lived in a bubble for most of their lives. They have little recollection of overt antisemitism. No one called them “dirty Jew.” Until now.

As the culture of antisemitism has changed, our priorities must change with them. Jewish students have become convenient targets for the pro-Hamas choir and their newly emboldened Jew-hating buddies.

The time is long past to introduce self-defense classes into our children’s daily schedule. We must advocate in their schools, yeshivas, synagogues and JCCs for the establishment of robust self-defense programs. No, I don’t believe that such classes are the answer to all our troubles. But they are a long overdue start.

Having taught such classes for over 50 years, I can assure you that they work and produce a more confident young person. This confidence is the inevitable byproduct of such training.

My students then were no different from our youth today. Some may feel that the previous generation was tougher, but I’m not sure that’s true. What I do know is that as my students’ strength increased, their courage did as well.  Yes, we had antisemites on campus back then too. There were neo-Nazis who were sorry that Hitler didn’t kill more of us. But that generation of young Jews was not born any more capable of handling them than today’s generation.

The many stories of Jewish students chased into libraries or being escorted out of classrooms for “their protection” make me ashamed and angry. Don’t you feel the same rage? Being called “murderers” responsible for genocide is outrageous.

Our children today should be equipped to handle themselves with confidence—be smart but be safe. When synagogues became targets for attack, our response was to organize members into gun-toting defense squads. Should we respond differently when our children are in danger? Like so many times in our history, our protection lies in our hands.

Hillel the Elder taught, “If I am not for myself who will be for me?” He was right then and he is right now.

We must not be squeamish when it comes to our safety. We and our children need to be empowered. Self-defense training does this. Back in the ’60s, we showed that Jewish kids could learn to stand up for themselves. We should do it again.

It’s time to shake off the dust. As Rabbi Alkabetz advised in “Lecha Dodi”: “Feel not ashamed, be not humiliated. Why are you downcast, why are you disconsolate?”

Jews must again walk with heads held high and an attitude that proclaims: We are Jews. We couldn’t be prouder. And if you don’t like it, we’ll shout it even louder.”

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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