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Kolot – How learning to defend myself became a transformative experience

By Harry Weller

“Transformative!” “Inspiring!” Those words jump to mind when I reflect on my experience in the Hartford Legion’s first self-defense program. The program’s main component is Krav Maga, the Israeli martial art, but also requires classes in situational awareness, the law of self-defense, active shooter response and first aid for trauma victims. The Legion has taught me a great deal about personal and community safety, and it came to town at the perfect time.

My interest in the Legion sprouted at an important junction in my life, my retirement and the return of socially acceptable antisemitism. Near the top of my retirement bucket list was learning some form of martial art as a sport. Relatedly, but independently, I needed a visceral outlet to personally cope with the uptick in antisemitic violence, especially because I believe that potential attackers consider Jews “soft targets.” In January 2018, Dan Gottfried and I brought the Legion Program to West Hartford. Consequently, last September I joined 25 community members who were accepted into the program.  

At the start, I was impressed with the diverse group of men and women we had recruited. Participants belong to seven synagogues from across the religious spectrum, 16 non-profit boards with three who work for local Jewish institutions. Like many participants, I was nervous initially, not knowing what to expect. That didn’t last long, however, because everyone was committed to learning how to to respond to the growing dangers facing the Jewish community. People who began as strangers coalesced into a team that trains, studies, celebrates holidays, learns about heroic Jewish historical figures and advances b’yachad — as one.

In Krav Maga class, Nathalie Weinstock (left) and Rivka Kaplan-Peck practice their back-kicks, as Josh Gottfried looks on.

As required, I attend Krav Maga training at least twice a week; one night exclusively with my Legion cohorts. Although the training is physically and mentally challenging, I love it, and, like other participants, I train whenever time permits.  Each class begins with calisthenics, including some dastardly modifications that our instructor Chris has added to many basic exercises. I learned the proper way to use my hands, elbows, knees and feet to defend against one or more assailants, along with techniques for escaping from myriad forms of restraint. Practicing these skills over and over is both exhausting and exhilarating, but I quickly realized that repetition promotes muscle memory, which increases my confidence in my newly acquired self-defense skills. The hard work is worth it. In February, on one long sweaty evening, all of us, including a member who is pregnant, passed the Level One Krav Maga exam.

If Krav Maga training increased my confidence, our required classroom sessions opened my eyes to both the dangers of today’s world and how I might prevent or mitigate dangerous situations. For one class, the Hartford Legion joined the Legion’s New York chapters for an all-day session on situational awareness presented by a special agent of the FBI. This training taught me to be more alert to my surroundings. For example, at community gatherings, I now evaluate a venue’s characteristics, including entrances, exits and possible areas of refuge, all with an eye toward preempting or responding to an emergency. Now, almost automatically, I scan a venue to make sure everything I see is b’seder — in order.

I also learned a lot while co-teaching the class on the legal implications of self-defense and use of force because my partner was Connecticut Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard A. Robinson. As a fourth-degree black belt in Tang Soo Do, Justice Robinson shared with us his unique perspective on and practical insights into justifiable self-defense. For me, this class spoke to the Legion’s ethos, promoting self-defense while rejecting vigilantism. Or, as participant Lori Zackin aptly described it, “how to use force in one’s defense responsibly.”

In March, we learned how respond to an active shooter, which enhanced our situational awareness training and introduced techniques such as how to disarm a shooter. The class was humbling because of the dangers it highlighted, and empowering because I learned when and how to be proactive if trouble arises.

Unquestionably, the Legion program has bolstered my confidence in many ways. Most poignant for me is that now I can now walk away from an aggressive antagonist without being afraid or intimidated. If my antagonist chooses to become an assailant and leaves me no choice, I am confident that he will be in for the surprise of his life. 

For more information on Hartford Legion, contact legionhartford@gmail.com.

Harry Weller recently retired from his position as a state prosecutor. In addition to The Legion, Harry and his wife Robyn are active members of Beth David Synagogue and volunteer for several organizations in Israel and the local Jewish community. They live in West Hartford.

CAP: Legion Hartford Chapter participants holding their Level One certificates.

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