Colonel Sharon Gat wants to put a gun-wielding terrorist response team in every synagogue in America.
How? By training volunteers from the synagogue itself.
His firm is launching the first organized effort to teach Jews across the country how to use guns to defend their congregations against shooters like the ones who perpetrated the attacks in Pittsburgh, Poway and Jersey City, bypassing the traditional security guard model and drawing concern from top communal security officials.
“The average person in these trainings, after 40 hours, I can say there’s a very, very good chance that if an active shooter comes into his synagogue, the active shooter will be dead, and people will be saved,” Gat said.
In the next two months, even amid uncertainty about whether synagogues will be open for the High Holidays due to the coronavirus pandemic, he will be doing 10 week-long training sessions in synagogues, mostly Orthodox, in California and Texas.
But the trainings contradict a key recommendation of major North American Jewish security groups: Leave the guns to law enforcement professionals. It is professionals who receive costly, lengthy trainings in which they learn how to deescalate a situation, and how to recognize biases themselves and mental illness or impairment in others. That education forms the backbone of effective security and policing, communal security experts say, and it’s not included in the more “tactical” training Gat offers, which emphasizes drills and the use of equipment.
“I think that it’s a slippery slope for us to think that we can train non-law enforcement individuals to understand all the perils and pitfalls of carrying a handgun in support of security for an organization,” said Brad Orisini, a nearly 30-year veteran of the FBI and who served as head of security for the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh from 2017 until earlier this year.
A gun-buying spree
Most of Gat’s clients are synagogues in the Orthodox and Hasidic communities. Together, they make up about 10% of American Jewry, and they were the victims of the two most recent attacks on American Jews: last December in Jersey City, N.J. and Monsey, N.Y. Those deadly episodes themselves followed a years-long spate of random street assaults in Brooklyn.
In learning synagogue defense from former Israeli commandos, these communities are now planning to mimic the Israeli model of security, where Jews with guns are an accepted part of synagogue life.
Synagogues across the country already employ members in service of day-to-day security, often standing alongside security guards as greeters, to monitor who is coming inside. Overall, few of these volunteers are armed, though there are clusters of communities, such in northern Chicago, where the greeters carry concealed handguns.
That Gat’s initiative is going national now, after a pilot run last year with 10 synagogues in the San Diego and Los Angeles, reflects a broader American trend.
Across the country, Americans are on a gun-buying spree. Gun purchases spiked during the beginning of the pandemic, then spiked even more dramatically during the marches against racist policing and systemic inequality. There were 3.9 million guns sold in June, the highest number recorded since such data collection began, in 1998, according to the Brookings Institution.
Security experts who primarily serve Jewish communities say that Orthodox Jews are likely among those buyers.
“It used to be one Sunday a month I’d have a class of 10,” said Jonathan Burstyn, an Orthodox Jew in Chicago who teaches basic gun safety classes required for a carry license, primarily to Jewish clients. “I’m doing weekly classes now of about 15, 18 people.”
Training and sweating and bleeding
Indeed, individual Jews and synagogues have sought out tactical training — meaning training that teaches skills primarily used in combat zones, in this case with a focus on fighting in buildings and enclosed spaces — for a few years already.
If you’re in the Los Angeles area, you can book Raziel Cohen, a.k.a. The Tactical Rabbi. In the New York area there is Cherev Gidon, a training firm and facility in Pennsylvania run by Yonatan Stern, an Israeli-American security instructor. Stern said his company is partnering with Caliber-3 in the tactical training initiative, while having already trained volunteer teams at 40 synagogues around the country over the past year.
Gat’s training is free to participants because a Jewish Republican political donor and philanthropist based near San Diego, Robert Shilman, covers most of the costs through his foundation, Gat said.
Shillman, founder and chairman of a large tech company, Cognex, contributed more than $660,000 to Republican campaigns and committees during the current election cycle, according to the most recent Federal Election Committee filings. He is also a major donor to pro-Israel causes such as Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces and Christians United For Israel, and supports Project Veritas, a conservative group that uses hidden cameras to try to film journalists in sting operations. He has also funded several figures and groups known for their vitriol against Islam, such as the David Horowitz Freedom Center and the academic William Kilpatrick.
Caliber-3 was founded in 2003, and is headquartered in Efrat, a West Bank settlement outside Jerusalem. The company was included in a “blacklist” released by the United Nations earlier this year of companies that operate in the West Bank, and which the U.N. said “raised particular human rights concerns.”
The company trains thousands of Israeli soldiers, police and security personnel a year in courses that can last months, and in recent years has begun offering half-day or shorter training to tourists, as well as weeks-long paramilitary drill courses marketed to observant American teenagers and young adults. It opened its first American location outside San Diego in 2018.
After the attack on Chabad of Poway in April of 2019, Shillman called Gat, Gat said, and proposed the joint project. In addition to the 10 synagogues already trained, Gat said he has 10 more communities in California and Los Angeles lined up for week-long sessions over the next two months. The trainings, with small groups of five to 10 people, are going forward as of now despite rising Covid-19 cases in both states. He declined to name the synagogues, citing privacy and security concerns.
The synagogue team trainings last 40 hours, and are run by Caliber-3 instructors who are former IDF special forces officers. The synagogue volunteers learn handgun skills and safety, Krav Maga hand-to-hand fighting techniques, first aid and strategies for responding to an active shooter as a team.
“There’s not a lot of speaking, not a lot of theory,” Gat said. “Besides eating a little bit at lunch, you’re just training and sweating and bleeding, that’s it.”
Gat declined to say how much money Shillman or he were donating to the effort, or divulge how much such a training would cost a paying participant, but similar ones cost up to $500 per person per day, Stern and Cohen said.
Part of the training takes place in the synagogue, to tailor response strategies to the space. Drills involving loaded guns, where volunteers are expected to shoot accurately while running or being shoved, take place on a specialized gun range or in a “shoot house,” a plywood-and-sheetrock mockup of a space under attack by a terrorist, where participants practice dragging wounded people out of the line of fire and aiming in close quarters under pressure.
Gat said that he seeks out the best volunteers before training begins by doing criminal and psychological background checks, and that 95% of the people selected for the training get his recommendation to bring handguns to their synagogues.
“I’m not looking for heroes, I’m not looking for show-offs, people who can be dangerous,” he said. “I want an average person with a sense of responsibility.”
Some Jews consider the tactical training so important, they have taken it without their synagogue’s knowledge.
One Orthodox Jewish community leader in the Los Angeles area said he has attended tactical trainings — and has carried his handgun to religious services — without the knowledge of his synagogue, and spoke on condition of anonymity for that reason. He said he has kept his synagogue in the dark to shield it from liability issues, but feels that having a single security guard is not enough to keep his family safe.
Not everyone can be handed that responsibility, he acknowledges.
During a days-long training with Cohen, “The Tactical Rabbi,” another congregant performed so poorly that the community leader advised the man not to carry a gun into a Jewish setting. That man agreed with the assessment.
Stil, the community leader said, any gun is better than no gun.
“I’m scared to death that some people I know who carry them on Shabbos have no business,” said the leader. But, he added, “I would rather have a couple amateurs in the room, than be sitting ducks with nothing in the room. That’s the alternative.”
‘What works in Ramallah’
Communal security officials worry having amateurs in the room could actually be more dangerous.
Michael Masters, the head of the Secure Community Network, which helps shape security policy for nearly all major institutions of American Jewish life, said he has heard concern from law enforcement officials in areas where Jewish communities have pursued their own training to defend against terrorist attacks.
He said he worries that people who undergo tactical training will think that’s all they need to know about security. That, he said, could lead to knee-jerk responses to incidents with people of color or mentally ill people, undermining relationships between the Jewish community and the surrounding community — and eroding security.
“It’s not about being” a soldier, Masters said. “It’s about understanding the complex dynamics of human engagement. When all you’re taught to be is a hammer, the whole world is nails.”
There are also differences between American-style security — which is broadly defensive — and Israeli-style security, which mandates all-out pursuit of a terrorist threat.
“There is an incredible kinship with Israel in many ways,” Masters said. “But what works in Ramallah and even in Tel Aviv is not necessarily what works in Richmond or Toledo.”
Yet the tactical training may be here to stay. Yonatan Stern, of Cherev Gidon, said that Hasidic communities around New York, where gun rules are stricter than California or Texas, are clamoring for more.
Stern called the Secure Community Network’s guidelines that guns be left to law enforcement personnel “totally ridiculous,” saying that a highly trained volunteer, who will lay down their life to protect their community, is always better than a paid guard. Though he emphasizes that the teams must be officially sanctioned by the synagogue, he says congregants secretly carrying is better than no guns in the sanctuary at all, like the community leader in Los Angeles.
“Members of a congregation, that’s their community — if someone comes in shooting, it’s their children, their parents, their spouse,” Stern said. “Those are the people I trust to defend a synagogue.”
Tactical handgun training for Jews defending synagogues