A Jewish security group in Los Angeles sprang into action in the wake of the protests that led to looting after the death of George Floyd in police custody.
Magen Am (Hebrew for “nation’s shield”) was launched in 2015 because it saw a need for better security and self-defense in the Orthodox community, its director, Rabbi Yossi Eilfort, told the Journal. The organization comprises 38 volunteers and is licensed to provide professional security. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Magen Am provided security primarily to synagogues.
Eilfort said Magen Am’s volunteers are trained to use communication skills to deescalate a situation, and use force only as a last resort. “Most of avoiding fights has to do with what message you are communicating to other people,” Eilfort said. “There’s the message of, ‘We are not a soft target. We are a hard place to get into,’ which will deter the majority of people. There are times that people might come looking for trouble, and you can work your way out of that by having a conversation with them and engaging with them in a different way.”
An example of when use of force is acceptable is when someone “is pulling up at the curb, already shooting,” Eilfort explained.
“There’s the message of, ‘We are not a soft target. We are a hard place to get into,’ which will deter the majority of people.” — Rabbi Yossi Eilfort
Magen Am volunteers are trained in communication and body language as well as in hand-to-hand combat and use of firearms. Eilfort said that volunteers are required to receive firearms training akin to “advanced [Los Angeles Police Department] qualifications.”
In the wake of the Floyd protests on May 30, Eilfort said Magen Am received requests to provide security in front of a specific person’s home. Because of its limited resources, Magen Am decided it would be better to patrol Jewish neighborhoods, and primarily focused on Hancock Park, with active patrols in North Hollywood and the Pico-Robertson area.
“We saw a lot of craziness,” Eilfort said. “We saw people lighting things on fire … and breaking into stores. Our rule was we protect people, not property. If we were there, we would tell people the legal ramifications of breaking into stores. We would shout at them to try and convince them [to stop], but we weren’t willing to put our members’ health at risk to protect a random paint supply store.”
Instead, they focused on preventing people from breaking into houses. “Most of the time we were able to just deter by showing up,” Eilfort said. “There were a few times that there was someone clearly looking for trouble and our standard was any time we saw someone, we would say, ‘God bless. Stay safe,’ and smile and wave. As soon as you smile and wave at them and you’re in uniform, they’re less likely to start a fight with you.”
Additionally, Magen Am provided security for Hatzalah’s volunteer ambulances when needed, along with cold drinks to the National Guard and law enforcement as a sign of support from the Jewish community.
“It’s been helpful for them to know there are people out there who see their hard work and support them,” Eilfort said.