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Magen Am: Defending and Protecting the L.A. Jewish Community

While employed at his father’s Chabad center, he filled his spare time honing his martial arts skills at local gyms. “One day a gym owner asked me to be a sponsored fighter for local competitions. From then on, my interest in martial arts grew even stronger,” Eilfort said. 
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September 9, 2021
Photo by Dan Kacvinski

When Rabbi Yossi Eilfort got his rabbinic ordination in 2012, his life plan and passion was to serve the Jewish community as a rabbi and teacher.  

He then developed a second passion: martial arts. 

While employed at his father’s Chabad center, he filled his spare time honing his martial arts skills at local gyms. “One day a gym owner asked me to be a sponsored fighter for local competitions. From then on, my interest in martial arts grew even stronger,” Eilfort said. 

His enthusiasm for self-defense led him and a group of friends to undergo firearms training with former Marines, SWAT instructors and retired Special Operations Forces from various branches including the IDF, U.S. Green Berets and Navy Seals.  

It didn’t take long for Eilfort to realize that his destiny for serving the Jewish community would take a different path. He formed the L.A.-based nonprofit Magen Am (Hebrew for Nation’s Shield)USA, which defines itself as: “an organization dedicated to the creation of essential armed security teams within the Jewish community.”

“Considering the size of the L.A Jewish community, with so many kosher restaurants, synagogues and Jewish institutions, effective security requires more than simply placing ‘hired guards’ outside a store or synagogue. It requires a holistic approach of training, on-site security and education.”

A mere five years old, Magen Am provides a wide-range of training and security services. “Considering the size of the L.A Jewish community, with so many kosher restaurants, synagogues and Jewish institutions, effective security requires more than simply placing ‘hired guards’ outside a store or synagogue,” Eilfort said. “It requires a holistic approach of training, on-site security and education.”

When the Israel-Hamas conflict broke out several months ago, it put the issue of antisemitism front and center on the minds of American Jewry. The Anti-Defamation League reported that 41% of American Jews surveyed said they are concerned about their personal safety. And locally, data from the Los Angeles Police Department shows that antisemitic hate crimes have increased by nearly 60% thus far in 2021. For Magen Am, this was all the more reason the Jewish community needed their services. 

The organization currently provides security services for 14 synagogues and six Jewish schools in the L.A. area. For synagogue protection on Shabbat and holidays, its Community Team program utilizes one or more synagogue members who are trained by Magen Am. These uniformed Team member volunteers provide assistance to Magen Am staff by screening synagogue attendees, many of whom they know.  

Although EIlfort didn’t serve in the military, he believes his lack for a formal military background helped keep his ego in check. “Starting from the vantage point of a rabbi and community member has allowed me to learn from security military experts in a way that better fits community security,” Eilfort said. “It’s proved to be more effective than starting with a military mindset and putting that into a community environment.”  

Seven days a week, 24 hours a day, Magen Am can be seen patrolling the streets, standing guard at synagogues, Jewish schools and restaurants. They currently are focused in the Hancock Park area but according to Eilfort, they will be expanding imminently to Pico-Robertson and the Valley.

The organization prides itself on having a strong relationship with local police, often undergoing joint training with the LAPD.

The organization prides itself on having a strong relationship with local police, often undergoing joint training with the LAPD. “When an incident occurs and we are on scene, the first thing we do is make sure law enforcement has been notified,” Eilfort said. “We then do our best to maintain the scene until they arrive — should they be needed. When possible, we work to deter, diffuse and de-escalate a situation so that it doesn’t come to a use of force.”

An example of Magen Am’s patrol capabilities occurred recently when a 12-year yeshiva boy was punched in the face on Melrose Avenue in the Fairfax district. Magen Am was first on the scene for the antisemitic incident that garnered considerable media attention. Magen Am put the suspect in custody until LAPD arrived and arrested him.

Magen Am staffers consist primarily of former U.S. and IDF military personnel which led to creating its Veterans Team Program.  “We soon realized many former IDF and U.S. military return from service and want to protect the Jewish community, but don’t have the opportunity,” Eilfort said. “Our Veterans division guards shuls, schools and private events. It is a win-win. These dedicated veterans, most of whom are Jewish, have the opportunity to utilize their training and skills to do what they love – protect the Jewish community.”

On an individual basis, Magen Am offers Community Training and Educational Programs for public firearms training and is working to also offer self-defense and hand-to-hand combat classes. To date, about 500 students have undergone this training. 

An obvious question might be — is there a difference between a Jewish organization defending the Jewish community and a secular security firm doing the same? “I think there is a difference,” Eilfort said. “With many of our security personnel being Jewish, there is a special connection with who we are protecting. We know antisemitism first-hand, and we understand how it feels to be targeted as a Jew.”

Eilfort believes his rabbinic training gives him a good foundation for creating an organization dedicated to protecting the Jewish community.  

“There is a verse in Psalms that says: ‘Praise be to the LORD my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle,’” Eilfort said. “While I am blessed to be part of this organization, I look forward to a time when the Jewish community won’t need to worry about defending itself.”

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