Getting Their Kicks In

Ali Taylor gives a knee to Amir Perets at the Krav Maga National Training Center in West Los Angeles.

Getting Their Kicks In

Krav maga is going national. The scrappy, Israeli self-defense system is reaching the American mainstream at an almost incongruously lavish, new National Training Center. Located on the bottom floor of a sleek office building at 11500 Olympic Blvd. in West Los Angeles, the center is complete with lockers, showers and state-of-the-art equipment favored by the Los Angeles Police Department.

Krav maga (“contact combat” in Hebrew) is the official fighting system of the Israel Defense Forces. It was created by Imi Lichtenfeld, an IDF chief instructor for hand-to-hand combat, who drew upon his experiences with Nazi youth gangs in Czechoslovakia.

Krav maga is down-and-dirty street fighting — practical, no-nonsense, simple to learn, banking on the body’s natural fighting instincts. You don’t have to don a ghi, the white uniform worn by Asian martial artists; nor do you bow or perform fancy rituals. You deflect blows and punch back at the same time. There are no rules.

In 1981, a cocky martial arts student from the San Fernando Valley, Darren R. Levine, was invited to study krav maga for a summer in Israel. He was 21, skeptical, and arrived with an attitude. But by the end of the program, he was so impressed that he vowed to bring krav maga back to Los Angeles.

Levine began by teaching students at Heschel Day School (his mother was the principal) as well as at a tiny adult class, consisting mostly of his friends. Over the years, he became a fifth-degree black belt, the highest-ranking instructor outside Israel.

Interest in krav maga grew. Dozens of law enforcement agencies wanted to learn it, from the FBI to the Beverly Hills Police Department to the California Highway Patrol. When the LAPD set up an advisory committee of martial arts experts, post-Christopher Commission, Levine was slotted a seat. By the mid-1990s, the regular courses at the University of Judaism were so packed that students overflowed out of the classrooms and onto the courtyard.

“We were bursting at the seams,” said Michael Margolin, a third-degree black belt who, with Levine and two other partners, decided to kick krav maga up a notch. They raised $320,000 from private investors and opened the 6,000-square-foot National Training Center on Feb. 15.

Since then, some 500 participants have already signed up, not only for krav maga but also for fitness training, body sculpting, yoga and other disciplines that complement the self-defense instruction.

Walk through the center’s training rooms, and a variety of scenarios unfold. In a rape-prevention class, women in business suits and high heels were shouting aggressively and viciously fighting off an “attacker” — actually an instructor in a padded suit.

“We don’t want the women coming to class just in their workout clothes, because we want to simulate the kinds of situations in which they could be attacked,” said Margolin, who is working toward a USC psychology doctorate and hopes to incorporate group therapy and empowerment training for rape survivors.

In another room, members of agencies such as the Santa Monica Police Department were learning arrest techniques and how to fight thugs with a gun. They credit krav maga with saving their skins: “Our entire…department is krav maga-trained,” as Brian Arnspiger, the Burbank P.D. detective in charge of officer training, told the Los Angeles Times. “In the past year, we’ve had five incidents in which officers used krav maga successfully…. [Suspects were in jail] before they knew what hit ’em.” — Naomi Pfefferman, Senior Writer

For more information about the Krav Maga National Training Center, call (310) 966-1300.

Camaguay’s Jewish community received a Hanukiah during Federation’s recent mission to the Cuban town.

Mission to Cuba

In the late 1950s, prior to Fidel Castro’s rise to power, the Jewish population of Cuba numbered about 15,000. As of a few weeks ago, when a group of about 30 Angelenos from the Jewish Federation Council visited the island nation, the count had dwindled to about 1,600, with approximately 90 percent intermarried.

Still, reports Ronald Silverman, the Beverly Hills attorney who chaired the mission, the Jewish population is increasing despite the extraordinarily hard conditions that have followed the withdrawal of Russian support. The nation is “in a virtual economic free fall,” Silverman said. “The people are hungry and desperate and have little hope.” (It is amazing the “disconnection between the people’s suffering and the continuing reverence for Castro,” Silverman said.)

The Jewish community, mostly concentrated in Havana, is in need of spiritual as well as material support, he said.

The most touching experience, according to Silverman and others on the mission, was dining out with a group of Havana Jews in a local restaurant. The Cubans devoured helping after helping of chicken, continuing to eat long after their American guests had put down their forks. “It’s a big luxury to have chicken,” one woman said, since most Cubans have meat only every three or four months.

The Los Angeles contingent, which included Federation President Herb Gelfand, United Jewish Fund Director Bill Bernstein and mission coordinator and Major Gifts Director David Sacks, immediately raised $10,000 to supply chicken to Cuban Jews for the next month. The group also made plans to raise $30,000 to establish a chicken cooperative to be run by the Cuban Jewish community, with help from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

One woman on the mission was so touched by the poverty of the Cuban Jews that she literally gave away all her clothes except for those on her back.

The guests visited three Havana synagogues and a kosher butcher, and left behind medical supplies. They were also present at the dedication of a home in the town of Camaguay that, with American-Jewish aid, is being turned into a synagogue to serve the community’s 75 Jewish families.

This was the first visit to the Cuban Jewish community by the Federation, and, already, Sacks reports, there is a waiting list of 100 people who want to go on the next mission. — Ruth Stroud, Staff Writer

Levy to Lead CCAR

Rabbi Richard Levy wants to change perceptions about Reform Jews’ level of observance.

“To a lot of people, being Reform means being nonobservant. It’s very harmful to Reform Jews who are serious, who are very active in the synagogue and in the home,” he said.

And now he’ll have the chance to change those perceptions. Levy was elected this week as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform movement’s rabbinical organization, at the group’s annual convention, in Miami.

Levy is only the third non-pulpit rabbi to head the 108-year-old, 1,800-member body, the oldest rabbinic organization of any denomination.

“One of my hopes is to end the dichotomy between the mitzvot of social justice and the mitzvot of observance and learning,” said Levy, executive director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council since 1975.

His primary means of achieving his goal will be through developing and passing what he calls the “New Pittsburgh Platform” at the organization’s convention in that city in 1999. It will be a formal update of the CCAR’s first major platform, passed in Pittsburgh in 1885.

The movement has often favored a commitment to social justice rather than ritual mitzvot, Levy said, because many rabbis thought these commandments were “bound to another time.”

“This remains the image of a lot of people, even though we have subsequently tried to say that it is not the case,” he said. “There is more Hebrew in congregations, often quite close to traditional congregations…. Overall, the level of observance is very different from what it was earlier in the century.

“On the eve of the new century, I hope that the New Pittsburgh Platform will very forcefully embrace mitzvot and encourage people that we need to respond to the commandments of the Torah. All Jews stood at Sinai. Our responses are different, but we all need to respond.”

Levy, in fact, identifies himself as belonging to the Reform movement’s “traditional wing” and is offended by stereotypes and jokes of “the very Reform Jew.”

“It doesn’t encourage other Jews to move beyond what they are doing already,” he said.

All three major institutions of the Reform movement — CCAR, Hebrew Union College and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations — have new professional leadership, Levy said, adding that “a major priority of all three is to increase Jewish literacy of Reform Jews.” And that is another major step toward changing perceptions. — William Yelles, Contributing Writer