By Mindy Rubinstein
Cameron Kholos, a Jewish student at the University of Colorado in Boulder, had been taking martial arts for more than 10 years and wanted to teach other Jewish students self-defense.
“I was really into Krav Maga,” says Kholos, a mechanical engineering major in his third year.
When Rabbi Yisroel Wilhelm and his wife, Leah, co-directors of the Rohr Chabad Center at CU, said during a student Shabbat dinner that they were starting a new program on Krav Maga, including food and discussion, and needed a volunteer to lead it, the 20-year-old’s hand shot up.
“It turned out to be a really awesome experience,” says Kholos. “These days, it’s super important to be able to defend yourself and to have the reflexes and skills.”
Called “Shield of David,” the program was developed just prior to the pandemic by Brian Blehar, a wellness industry entrepreneur, and optometrist Eli Ben-Moshe. It quickly spread to 10 college campuses and synagogues.
The six-week pilot program at CU Boulder included 15 students who came together to study Jewish topics and history, share a meal and learn Krav Maga.
The program will officially launch during the next school year.
“It’s important for Jewish students to understand what their role is in responding to anti-Semitism,” says Rabbi Wilhelm.
“Where they come from, their heritage, the story of what’s gotten us here, how we have overcome thousands of years of anti-Semitism. And Judaism, its values and Torah still stand strong among everything.”
He says that it’s important for students to have the ability to “stand up and explain Judaism to others, to their friends, to the world.”
“Physically, very practically speaking, there’s a lot of anti-Semitism going on,” he says. “It’s good to know that in a worst-case scenario they know how to respond. Krav Maga is actually a very simple way of reaching the kids. They learn to understand the importance of standing up for themselves.”
Partnering with Shield of David draws more students than other programs, he says.
“The program allows us to be able to reach Jewish kids who wouldn’t otherwise come to a Jewish event. It gives them a nice way of getting involved in the Jewish community.
“Some of the kids that were coming to the program wouldn’t show up for anything else, but this is what brought them here.”
Each session starts with Krav Maga — how to use it in real life on campus, on a subway or on the street. Then there’s a story and learning period, including the history of anti-Semitism and past examples, as well as learning about Judaism.
“In the future, we will incorporate more curriculum and education,” says Kholos, although he acknowledges that the main draw for students initially is the lure of Krav Maga and free food. “That got a lot of people to come.”
During the sessions, he says the initial reaction was often, “Oh, I didn’t know this was happening.”
Most of the program is student-led, with the rabbi there to answer questions.
‘Anti-Semitism has become normalized’
Shield of David co-founder Eli Ben-Moshe, who has two children in college — in Boulder and at the University of Wisconsin in Madison — was “appalled” at what Jewish students were going through on college campuses, as well as the fact that many parents don’t even realize it.
“Our kids are experiencing anti-Semitism at schools. They didn’t even realize this was what was happening.” So something was needed to “change the mentality.” He aims to help develop “proud, strong Jews — like Israeli Jews.”
It’s been relatively easy for anti-Semitism to seep into schools and other places because people tend to be asleep in the US, he says.
“Someone says something [against Israel and the Jews] and somehow it’s OK. If the same joke was said about blacks, no one would stand for it.”
As an example, the AEPi fraternity at CU Boulder moved its building to another location on campus, and the old one was dubbed by students as “the oven.”
“They’re laughing about it,” notes Ben-Moshe. “I’m like, guys, this is not OK.”
He called the Chabad rabbi, and that was when they created the first event.
They now plan to roll out the program at between 20 and 30 schools, though more than 50 have reached out asking about it.
In addition to the practical skill of Krav Maga, the students get to socialize. They develop Jewish pride and. “It works well for everyone,” says Ben-Moshe, who adds that it puts the kids on the offense, understanding who they are and what’s going on.
After the pilot program, the students become members of Shield of David and continue to receive alerts. There’s also an app that further strengthens the sense of community among Jewish students. Some of the program ambassadors in each city will get sponsored trips to Israel to learn more. Shield of David graduates become what it calls “intellectual foot soldiers.”
“I never thought I’d have to do this when I moved to America,” says co-founder Brian Blehar, who emigrated from South Africa 1994.
Anti-Semitic attacks, he says, are “now on a corner near you.” He wants the program focused on Jews fighting back.
Blehar has an extensive martial arts background, including competitive Judo. He represented South Africa multiple times at Maccabiah Games, even earning medals.
The five-year vision for Shield of David is to train 10,000 students.
“Our goal is to be on every campus,” says Blehar. “To arm the kids with the facts” and with their ability to defend themselves.