FIGHTING BACK: This week saw attempted attacks on two Chicago synagogues. Two Jewish U.S. Army veterans are trying to teach Jews how to defend themselves

Jeff Sacks and Sid Stein practice a self-defense technique.

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Wielding a plastic dummy knife in an Evanston living room, Jeff Sacks lunged at Sid Stein, who blocked his arm and weapon with his right hand.

Over the next 10 minutes, Sacks and Stein demonstrated how a person would defend himself from an assailant. Both Jewish U.S. Army veterans with Sacks possessing additional security and self-defense training from his Chicago police sergeant’s days, the pair engaged in a kind of slow-motion ballet with their moves and counter-moves. The session might have passed for rehearsal of a scene from a movie, TV show or play.

“Put distance (between victim and assailant),” Sachs advised. “It’s a 21-foot rule.”

This was no play-acting, though. Amid a nearly-surreal social political atmosphere in which white supremacist acts, including a dozen shooting fatalities at synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway — and this week’s attempted attacks at two Chicago synagogues — Sachs and Stein’s demonstration is very serious business.

With Sacks’ help, Stein is trying to promote self-defense techniques, including martial arts and firearm familiarity, among Jews, along with increased security at synagogues and other Jewish institutions. Stein is working to form a Chicago chapter of Legion, a four-year-old New York-based non-profit organization that teaches Jews to take personal charge of their security amid the worldwide increase in anti-Semitic incidents.

Even before he can formally bring Legion – which employes Israeli Defense Force veterans as instructors in New York – to Chicago, Stein is proactively helping Jews at a shooting range in Waukegan.  Several Orthodox women are among the students.

Meanwhile, Sacks provides security for Ezra-Habonim, The Niles Township Jewish Congregation in Skokie on Friday nights. An off-duty police officer is being added for Saturdays. Where synagogues once advertised their open-door policy with multiple entrances on Shabbat and for minyans, they now increasingly restrict access through one locked door. Guarding that one entrance, Sacks advocated multiple layers of defense, including armed guards, for synagogues to deter potential shooters and other purveyors of mayhem.

A veteran of service near Korea’s demilitarized zone in the early 1990s, Stein, 53, is a member of Jewish War Veterans North Shore Post 29.  Sacks, who was commissioned as an officer in the Army out of the University of Illinois in 1979, eventually served in Germany and commanded a military-police unit. He mustered out of the National Guard as a major while concurrently rising to sergeant on patrol in the North Side’s 20th police district. Sacks is a member of the JWV’s Chicago Post 153.

As a police sergeant, Sacks witnessed up-close-and-personal the negative changes in society and an increase in firepower in weapons trafficked under the Second Amendment.  Semi-automatic rifles and pistols have combined with hatemongers and poorly-treated mental illness to create potential hazards for racial and religious minorities.

“It’s not just us,” Sacks said. “I would hate to be Muslim (in the U.S.).”

No matter what form of security is employed by individuals and groups, Sacks believes Jews need to be on guard in all their public activities. He recently spoke about that with Chicago’s Michael Masters, national director and chief executive officer of the Jewish Federations of North America’s Secure Community Network.

Bad enough are anti-Semites drawn to a sense of community on the internet. Lone-wolf actors have bubbled up as a result.  Even worse is a toxic brew melding hate and undiagnosed, untreated mental illness.

“It’s a real problem for the police,” Sacks said. “At Lincoln station, we also handled Edgewater and Uptown. There’s a lot of the ‘walking wounded’ there.”

The effort to start taking safety literally into one’s hands would start with Legion’s self-defense training, said Stein.

As a martial-arts instructor, Stein is an advocate of using one’s hands as a first line of defense. “No one is walking around with their firearm drawn,” Stein said. “You need to have your empty-hand skills.  The Legion takes a more comprehensive approach with jujitsu and krav maga.”

Krav maga (Hebrew for “contact-combat”) was a self-defense tactic developed by native Hungarian martial-arts expert Imi Lichtenfeld amid defending the Czech Jewish community against fascist attacks prior to the Nazi takeover in 1939. The nascent IDF adopted krav maga by the early 1950s, thus its use by Legion instructors in New York. Instead of a seemingly choreographed, almost poetic martial-arts out of a movie, krav maga emphasizes “brutal efficiency,” teaching its practitioners to run toward aggression. Other self-defense forms promote spacing to enable a person latitude for defense.

The actual concept for Legion was developed long before the 2017 Charlottesville march in which torch-bearing white supremacists chanted “Jews will not replace us” with one anti-supremacist protestor killed by driver who plowed into a crowd.  The group began in New York in 2015, a year when a 50 percent increase in assaults on Jews were reported.

“We did not start to build bunkers or gather up weaponry,” Loew told the Vocativ tech-news web site in 2017. “We decided, let’s do something that’s a proportionate response and set up a program that will train young Jews.”

When applying, would-be participants go through a two-month approval process that includes a background check and an in-panel interview to screen out unwanted radicalism.

“We don’t want people who are radically pro- or anti- anything,” Loew said in the Vocativ article. “We want to keep people out of the program who might dislike Jews because they’re Jews, and we also want to keep Jews out of the program who dislike other people because they’re not Jews.”

Once accepted, Legion participants, called “cadets,” are required to attend a minimum of two one-hour sessions per week. Cadets can attend up to three classes per week. In addition to self-defense techniques, topics covered include situational awareness, active-shooter response training, threat detection and emergency first aid.

“Now there’s a chance for those tough Jews in Israel to come back and help the American Jews get a little bit tougher,” Loew told Vocativ. “Some of them not-so-quickly admitted that it appeared to them that the Jews in America were kind of weak and easy targets.”

A similar Legion program in Chicago, Sacks said, would be a means “to get younger people involved in the defense of the Jewish community. Jewish War Veterans is suffering from being an ancient organization. Even though more people are coming to the (gun) range sessions, we need younger people.”

“We take a comprehensive approach,” said Sacks. “Empty hands, stick, knife.” In New York, Legion has now moved on to basic firearms training to supplement the physical self-defense program. Stein envisions a similar progression with a Chicago chapter.

Stein and Sacks have become safety officers at Caliber Gun Range in Waukegan, which has attracted an increase in Jewish clientele in recent months.

“They’re very Jewish- and Israeli-friendly,” Stein said of the range.  “We (veterans) started shooting on a quarterly basis. In the last few months, we’ve been pulling in non-veterans through word-of-mouth. Some Orthodox women. They get trained and everything’s done safely.”

Although he can defend himself with his hands and awareness, Sacks preferred the certainty of being able to handle a gun. Echoing the Israeli veterans’ criticism of American Jews’ supposed softness, Sacks claimed the majority of Jews have an “aversion” to guns in a country where military service has been voluntary since 1973. Service is compulsory in Israel for both genders, so experience with weapons is widespread.

“All over the United States, (Jews) are not familiar with firearms anymore,” he said.

Sacks said for older Jews, familiarity with firearm use might be more advisable than a brand-new mastery of martial arts.

“For guys in our 60s to go into martial arts, if you take a fall, you can get seriously hurt,” he said. “When I (first) took martial arts, I was in my 20s.”

Sacks’ wife, Pye, went through Illinois conceal-and-carry training. “But she doesn’t carry now because she doesn’t practice enough,” he said. “I practice once a month, sometimes twice. Anybody who is proficient should practice four times a year. At the police academy, they made us shoot several times a week, and we did that for a period of 15 weeks.”

Proper gun ownership doesn’t end with knowing how it is used and carried. Even with proper instruction and regular practice, a gun owner must be scrupulous about safety. A New York Times story reported that suicides and accidents with weapons improperly stored at home were still more prevalent than home invasions in which the homeowner defended himself with a firearm. The presence of children with guns nearby that were either loaded and/or not locked up was not uncommon.

“You have to have a safe, or a gun-lock,” said Sacks. “A gun-lock is real minimal.” Sacks keep his own personal weapon under lock and key at home, but it is quickly accessible if needed.

Through all their tough talk and endorsement of tougher, more aware American Jews, neither Stein nor Sacks ever endorse the concept of “shoot first, ask questions later.” Remember, as a member of military and Chicago police, Sacks’ first dictum was to “preserve order.”

“At the end of the day, it’s comprehensive self-defense training,” said Stein. “You don’t have to live in fear. You need to get trained up. Do it professionally with certification and continual training.

“If you need to use force, no matter what you use, it’s your last resort. We teach in martial arts, always try to de-escalate.”

For more information on Legion, go to Info@legionalpha.com or Youtube/RMpmYtllZiO.  A Facebook group “LegionChicago” has been formed.

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