On a bright and brisk mid-March Sunday morning in the rural, rolling woodlands of northwest Baltimore County, a small group of men gathered on a trap range for a couple hours of shooting competition. Well, not so much competition as doing something together they enjoy.
Standing on a cement path delineated by five stations, the men took their turns loading shells filled with birdshot and sighting down the long barrels of their shotguns. Each in turn then called “Pull!” into a microphone. From behind a dark green blind about 15 yards ahead on a grassy slope, a fluorescent orange disc suddenly flew into view.
The crack of a shotgun blast snapped through the cold air and the disc, a clay “pigeon,” exploded against the clear blue sky, raining down orange clay shards, the remnants of scores of satisfying hits and frustrating misses.
This is the Givati Rifle & Pistol Club on one of its monthly outings. The Jewish gun club was founded in Pikesville about five years ago and named for an Israeli Defense Forces brigade in honor of one of its founding members. This year, the club has rifle, trap and youth BB gun shoots scheduled as well as a three-gun competition and a pumpkin shoot in the fall.
Shmuel Frankel, 30, club president and a founding member, outfitted that morning in a yarmulke and black fleece jacket sporting the club patch, is a Social Security Administration attorney who owns about a half-dozen guns for sport and self-defense. He started the club after finding a group of like-minded Jews through a Facebook page.
“I started a Facebook page called Every Jew a 22,” he said. “It was more tongue-in- cheek, and the page was to share deals, so finding ammunition at cheap prices and that type of thing.”
In the Jewish community, especially in the Orthodox community, well in most of the Jewish communities, there’s a lot of taboo around guns. — Shmuel Frankel, president Givati Rifle & Pistol Club
He named the page after the famous quote by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the Jewish Defense League, who urged Jews to be proactive in their self-defense. Since forming the club, Frankel has taken the page down, but that spirit of Jewish self-preservation, as well as safety, education and camaraderie, is still a main driver for him and club members.
Against the backdrop of recent marches and demands for tighter gun control in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Jewish gun enthusiasts such as Frankel say they feel for the victims and the calls for school safety. However, they also do not want to see their rights as gun owners diminished.
“I want to disabuse the notion that gun owners don’t care. I care very deeply that people were hurt, injured and killed in these mass shootings, and it really bothers me,” he said. “But from my personal standpoint, I don’t see how further restricting my rights would have any effect on those mass shootings.”
Frankel thinks there is a lot of common ground between people who own guns and those who don’t on laws that could help make mass shootings less common. But trust is a big issue.
“I think most gun owners agree with me that liberal politicians don’t want to enact gun control, they want to enact gun elimination,” he said. “So, there’s kind of a slippery- slope argument, where we don’t trust the liberal and Democratic politicians to enact those laws, make those laws, enforce those laws.”
Filling a Need
About five years ago, Frankel said that he and like-minded gun owners, such as Tzviel “BK” Blankchtein, owner of Masada Tactical in Pikesville, saw a void and thought a club could fill a niche for Baltimore’s Jewish gun owners.
“There were a lot of people who owned firearms. BK found that out from running the gun store and through his firearms training business,” Frankel said. “But they either left them in their safe, or were just not really training, practicing. They bought it for self-defense and it just sits on the shelf and collects dust.”
Frankel and Blankchtein also saw a need for Jewish gun owners to access safety training, education and resources and to come out of the shadows to socialize and share with other gun enthusiasts.
“In the Jewish community, especially in the Orthodox community, well in most of the Jewish communities, there’s a lot of taboo around guns,” Frankel said. “People who do own guns feel they have to keep it a secret. They can’t let anybody know and they don’t have that ability to be with other like-minded people.”
Blankchtein, 42, an Israeli and former IDF infantryman, is no longer a club member but said the club formed at a time when there was a rise in anti-Semitic events locally and around the country, which proved another reason for Jews with guns to get together.
“Whatever the root may be, it might have been street-level crime, nothing to do with anti-Semitism, but we definitely were targeted. So, there was a need for empowering and the club definitely accomplished that,” he said. “On a more global sense, there’s this whole sense that Jewish people don’t fight back and they don’t arm themselves. It was time to change that and to show people that we can protect ourselves, we can defend ourselves and it doesn’t have to be political, it doesn’t have to be negative in context. We can do it in a fun manner and in a social environment and yet empower our own people to take control of their own destiny in a sense.”
In late 2013, Frankel took down the Every Jew a 22 page and put up a club Facebook page. The club registered as a not-for-profit and became an official gun club so it could join Associated Gun Clubs in Marriottsville, a huge facility with a variety of outdoor ranges. But this club would be different from the more than 100 other AGC-affiliated clubs. Givati Rifle & Pistol Club would be Shomer Shabbos and keep kosher.
We can protect ourselves, we can defend ourselves and it doesn’t have to be political, it doesn’t have to be negative in context. — Tzviel “BK” Blankchtein, owner of Masada Tactical in Pikesville
“For a lot of the community, there wasn’t the ability to join one of those [gun] clubs and be a part of those activities because they were either on Saturdays or Friday nights or they didn’t have an opportunity for kosher food,” Frankel said. “So, we decided that we were going to start a Jewish gun club that was going to be on par with those gun clubs, and that we would make sure that we observed all of the holidays, and Sabbath, and we would observe all of the kosher laws to the highest level that we could, so we could get as many people who want to be involved.”
About 20 people showed up for the first meeting with founding board members including Frankel, Blankchtein and Rabbi Jonathan Gross, former assistant rabbi at Beth Tfiloh Congregation, who became the first club president.
Five years later, the club has more than 450 Facebook followers, many of whom are women, which Frankel considers the club’s “community,” and a website where more than 100 people have registered to join the club, which currently has about 50 dues-paying members. The mix is about 50-50 Orthodox to non-Orthodox, Frankel said.
On a cold and dreary late- January evening, the club’s 2018 annual membership meeting drew about 40 people to a large fluorescent-lit meeting room at Suburban Orthodox Congregation Toras Chaim in Pikesville. The crowd, mostly men, was a mix of young and old, some wearing yarmulkes and some sporting black hats and beards. One woman attended.
Frankel opened the meeting by mentioning that that week’s Torah portion supported the notion of Jews being armed to protect themselves.
Mark Pennak, president of gun-owner rights advocacy group Maryland Shall Issue, talked about current gun legislation in the General Assembly, including a bill to prohibit possession of detachable gun magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. Many members of the group were concerned that the firearms they already owned would become illegal. Attorney Moshe Martin Cohen and Baltimore City assistant state’s attorney and Democratic District 41 delegate candidate Dalya Attar discussed gun laws and answered questions.
“Banning possession is basically saying that thousands of people who live and travel through Baltimore city are now felons, because they own, they possess, these so-called high-capacity magazines,” Frankel said later. “In terms of on a national level, some of the issues [the club discusses] are universal carry. The idea that if you have a carry permit in one state it’s valid in a different state, like a driver’s license.”
Frankel said the 16-hour training course that Maryland requires before owning a handgun is a good one.
“I teach that course. That’s a long, long course and we cover everything. There’s a practical component and there’s a shooting qualification where you have to shoot a target at a pretty decent distance to qualify,” he said. “So, if you obtain a carry permit in Maryland, you’ve been very thoroughly vetted. And I think you’ll find among the gun community that nobody’s saying it should be a free-for-all and everybody should have as many guns as they want. I think most people agree that there needs to be a balance. On the other hand, it seems like most of these laws punish law-abiding gun owners, because we’re the only ones who will follow the law.”
Frankel, who lives in Pikesville/Greenspring, grew up in Los Angeles in an Orthodox household that eschewed firearms, although he did shoot rifles and shotguns in an Orthodox scouting program. “My parents let me have cap guns on Purim, but they didn’t allow any type of projectiles, no Nerf guns, nothing that fired a projectile in the house. I don’t think we necessarily had any conversations about guns in general. It was never a topic,” he said.
But a photo of his grandfather proved an influence. “There was a picture my mother has, that has a group of people sitting for a photograph and they’re all holding firearms. And it’s posed out in the forest. That was a group of partisans who fought Germans outside of the Warsaw ghetto. And my grandfather was one of those people. And he’s sitting in that picture with a gun.
“That kind of stuck with me on a personal level. That, especially as Jews, we need to have that ability to make sure that we can protect ourselves.”
He first bought a gun when he was in law school — “a cheap, little .22-caliber handgun just for target practice. Not even considering it for home defense. It was just something I wanted to practice on.”
He joined Masada Tactical five years ago and has since become an NRA and Maryland firearms instructor and a self-defense instructor. He has handguns and long guns for sport and self-defense, and he keeps the guns in a large, secured gun safe.
By contrast, Givati member Tom Arnold, 46, grew up in Hartford, Connecticut, where his father taught him to shoot at an early age. He also attended camps with shooting sports. Now, the security guard, firearms instructor and EMT is required to be proficient with a firearm.
Arnold got involved with Givati through a friend who invited him to a trap event. A Second Amendment supporter, he believes that “the right to keep and bear arms is an individual right.”
“Here in America, we are not subjects,” he said via email. “We are citizens, and the government represents our interests. Because of this, the government cannot reserve for itself a right that is not enjoyed by all of its citizens.”
That said, Arnold does believe there are limitations on every right enumerated in the Bill of Rights. “My family members and I have discussed the issue of firearm ownership and we all agree that a permit to own or carry a firearm should be like a driver’s license. It should apply in all 50 states (and territories) and there should be a national standard for training.”
Another Givati member, 47-year-old Marc, who didn’t want to use his last name, was not even allowed to be near guns when he was growing up.
“Couldn’t have a BB gun,” said the Westminster resident between shooting trap at the AGC range. “When I turned 21, I bought a pistol because I was 21 and I could. I thought it would be fun to go the range and shoot. I used it off and on for years.” But he didn’t really do much shooting until he joined Givati, which he learned about from his dentist. Now he owns a couple of rifles and pistols and a shotgun. He has taught his boys, 12 and 15, to shoot safely.
“They both enjoy it,” he said. “I wanted to teach them once they were around 10 or so, because I knew they might be at friends’ houses and I wanted them to at least be safe and have a respect for it. So they know there’s no fooling around.”
He enjoys the club because it gives him a consistent and safe outlet for his hobby.
“I don’t have a lot of friends who shoot. So, it’s nice to have a group,” he said. “The funny thing is, the more other Jewish people I talk to, the more I find out they do shoot, or do own a gun, but don’t feel like they can tell anybody. There are a lot more Jewish gun owners and Jewish Republicans and Jewish conservatives than people realize. It’s like a dirty little secret.”
I knew they might be at friends’ houses and I wanted them to at least be safe and have a respect for it. So they know there’s no fooling around. — Marc, club member
When it comes to mass shootings, Marc is not sure new gun laws would change anything. He noted that Maryland has strict gun laws, yet “we don’t have any lower crime rates than anywhere else.”
“Baltimore is not exactly known as a safe haven,” he said. “I would like to see the existing laws on the books that would do some good actually enforced. I’d like to see straw purchasers vigorously prosecuted. I think that would send a very strong message to a lot of these people who get hold of guns through that mechanism. So they know there’s a penalty.”
As for the club, he’d like to see more children involved.
“It becomes an example for other children, that, yes, you can do this sport carefully and safely. Think how many people, how many kids, don’t know how to safely handle a firearm,” he said. “And kids make stupid choices. We know that. My kids know that if they’re dumb enough to make the mistake to pick one up they find at someone’s house, I know their finger’s not going to be on that trigger.”
Herbie Mendelson, 49, of Reisterstown, grew up in Pikesville and didn’t have much interaction with guns as a youth, besides some riflery classes during summer camp. It wasn’t until he attended dental school in Richmond, Virginia, that he got more involved.
“I really started to enjoy it. A lot of target shooting and trap shooting,” he said.
He has participated in some three-gun competitions, where participants compete with a rifle, shotgun and handgun, running from position to position and firing at targets against the clock. He enjoys the camaraderie of the club and appreciates the Sunday activities and the mix of Jewish members.
“It’s a lot of fun. I go shooting with friends all the time and obviously my Richmond crew is not Jewish. I do enjoy that component of it,” he said. “It’s an eclectic group, because we’ve got really Orthodox guys and we’ve got some who aren’t Jewish, and others who are.”
Mendelson has four children, all of whom have been exposed to guns and gun safety, which he says reduces accidents.
“When I lived in Richmond, guns were pretty much ubiquitous and you just didn’t hear about accidents. I did my residency at University of Pennsylvania and the laws were very strict,” he said. “I couldn’t get used to how frequently I heard about an accident that happened. Usually it wasn’t somebody in their own house, it was somebody in someone else’s house and the novelty was there. That’s a shame. I think the more knowledgeable people are, the less problems we’re going to have.”