Twenty-two participants sat in rapt attention during a recent Sunday training session at Masada Tactical in northwest Baltimore County. Each of the 17 men and five women came to the four-hour Handgun Qualification License (HQL) class for their own reasons. Some were police officers and security guards fulfilling their re-certification requirement.
Others were civilian gun owners seeking to improve their skills on gun safety. Among them were members of the Jewish community acting on their desire to protect themselves and their places of worship in the event of attacks similar to those targeting Jewish individuals and institutions in this country from Poway to Monsey.
The instructor was Tzviel “BK” Blankchtein, a former Israel Defense Forces infantry reconnaissance team member and owner and operator of Masada Tactical, LLC, which offers cutting-edge self-defense and gun training for civilians, military, law enforcement, and security organizations.
This particular class on Jan. 5 covered Maryland’s requirements for classroom instruction on state firearm law, home firearm safety, and handgun mechanisms and operation. Another requirement: applicants must demonstrate the ability to safely fire a handgun.
The class usually consists of 12 to 15 participants, said Blankchtein, but this time around the enrollment requests tripled and he had to schedule two additional sessions as well.
Blankchtein has seen a spike in enrollment like this before: right after the deadly Oct. 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh that took 11 Jewish lives.
Thirteen months later, the nation witnessed yet two more attacks utilizing lethal force against Jews. A shooting in December left four dead at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City; and an attack by a man wielding a machete on a Monsey synagogue’s Chanukah party, hosted at the home of their rabbi, left five wounded. One victim, 71-year-old Josef Neumann, was still in a coma as of Jan. 7.
The spike in new enrollees in HQL classes after these type of events usually level off after one class, Blankchtein said; for the martial arts self-defense training, it takes a few more. He would prefer people make any of these safety courses a long-term commitment.
“People need to be proactive, not reactive,” he said. “My goal is to educate, to prepare people in the event of an attack, but it defeats the purpose of training if they only come once.”
“There has to be a holistic approach to safety,” he added. “The gun is a tool, but it should not be the end goal. It is critical that people interested in purchasing a gun learn to use it in a safe manner.”
Jamie Rubin is a nurse by training who works as an infection preventionist at a local hospital. The HQL training was her first time attending a gun certification class, Rubin said.
“I want to increase my personal knowledge of gun safety,” she explained. “I would like to be able to safely handle and disarm a weapon if the need arises. Preparedness is key.”
Welcome to the Gun Club
“I think people have been interested in guns for a long time, but the media is just covering the stories now because it’s a hot topic,” Herbie Mendelson opined during an interview at a local gun range last week. A member of the Givati Pistol and Rifle Club — a Jewish, Baltimore-area group — Mendelson is a dentist by profession and gun enthusiast by passion. He started shooting while a student at the Medical College of Virginia, he said.
Mendelson said he has seen a lot of interest in gun ownership, but it isn’t something openly discussed.
Mendelson also said he has seen the numbers of the Givati Club grow as incidents of mass shootings and related attacks have increased. Members range from law enforcement personnel and experienced gun owners, to people who have an interest and want to learn more about handling a gun safely.
“Practice is key, but there is no way you can re-create the fear and stress that would be present in a real-life scenario, and the composure necessary to make sure you don’t hit the wrong target.”
Even so, “while the stress of the situation may ad variables that can’t be practiced, I do believe that the average person can still rise to the occasion and save the day, while a so-called expert may still crack under the pressure.” He cited the Parkland school shooting in 2018 as an example: “The Sheriff’s Deputy failed to rise to the occasion, even though he was present and armed. I don’t fault him for that; despite his training, he was unable to help. Had an individual been armed in the school, perhaps, like in the Texas church shooting, many lives could have been saved.”
Mendelson was referring to the Dec. 30, 2019 shooting at the West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement, Texas. According to a New York Times article published shortly after the shooting, Jack Wilson, a volunteer member of the church’s security team, shot the attacker before he could take any more lives.
Wilson was not just an ordinary volunteer, but a firearms instructor, gun range owner, and retired reserve deputy in the local sheriff’s department.
“Those of us who have carry permits will carry firearms even in synagogue,” said Shmuel Frankel, an attorney and president of the group. “Members of the Givati Club are forming another organization specifically geared towards training these individuals to be more effective in engaging an active assailant.”
“What we saw in Texas was a highly trained individual, a retired law enforcement officer and an instructor who intervened and saved lives,” said Blankchtein. “He is the right person to have done that.”
“I am a fan of arming congregants, provided it’s done legally and that they have full knowledge on the use of deadly force as per the state guidelines as it relates to carrying a firearm,” said Patrick J. Brosnan, an institutional security expert based in New York. “It’s a sad commentary on the state of the world, but the central take-away is a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun.”
Most rabbis and synagogue executives declined to comment for this story on whether they have a policy in place regarding congregants bringing legal firearms to services. Their reasons ranged from security concerns — perhaps the lack of public information will serve as a deterrent to potential attackers, they hope — to not wanting to comment on a subject they consider politically sensitive at this time.
A few, however, were willing to share their thoughts.
Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan is director of Chabad-Lubavitch of the Maryland Region and spiritual leader of The Shul at the Lubavitch Center in Baltimore. He shared his mixed feelings about congregants bringing guns to synagogue.
“First of all, I do believe that at times things have been hyped unnecessarily, and the fear has been stoked where it has been taken beyond its proportion,” he said. “The fact is that while there is a degree of danger at all times, there is no absolute security. Absolute security only comes from God.” Citing Psalms, he recited: “A song of ascents about Solomon: If the Lord will not build a house, its builders have toiled at it in vain; if the Lord will not guard a city, [its] watcher keeps his vigil in vain.”
“Nevertheless, I have changed my view on this a little bit,” Kaplan continued. “The degree of threats has increased. There is some validity to adding extra security, in adding experts in the field.”
This is where Kaplan distinguishes the critical difference between having trained experts providing protection versus well meaning individuals whose training may be sorely lacking.
“Torah tells us, if we have an illness, follow the advice of the experts in the field to preserve life. If you have a threat to life, go to the experts on how to handle this,” he said.
Kaplan shared that congregants have raised questions about increased security. He pointed out that he has withdrawn his initial opposition to having security on site and has hired experts in the field.
“In principle, if someone wants to [carry a concealed weapon], they have to be properly trained. One, it’s dangerous. Two, otherwise it’s useless. In Texas, you had someone intervene who was highly trained. It could have ended badly, otherwise, but it was an instinctual response from someone who had years of training.”
“Our policy at Beth El is that only active or retired law enforcement officers can carry a weapon on premises,” said Joshua W. Bender, Beth El Congregation’s executive director.
“We are fortunate to have many congregants who are in this category who frequent our facility regularly including attendance at Shabbat services.” Bender also stated that Beth El now has armed guards whenever the building is in operation, and has hardened the facility with other “security enhancements.”
Bender did not endorse the notion of permitting the general congregation to bring guns to the synagogue, saying that most “civilian gun owners and carriers do not have the tactical training to deal with an active assailant. Sometimes introducing guns into a facility without the proper training could increase the risks.”