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L to R: Rabbi Yossi Eilfort of Magen Am, Mushka Lowenstein, Srula Chaiton, and Dassy Eilfort take aim at a shooting range. (Mark Abramson for The Free Press)

A Skirt, a Wig, and a Glock-19

With antisemitic hate crimes on the rise, Orthodox Jewish women are packing heat to defend their communities.

The first thing Mushka Lowenstein does after saying her morning prayers, adjusting her wig, and serving her three kids breakfast, is take her Glock-19 out of the safe. 

Then she puts on her uniform—a sweater and a skirt with hidden pants and belt loops sewn in where she places the holster for her gun. Then she grabs the portable case that carries her Glock and puts it under the stroller she uses to push her five-year-old to synagogue in Los Angeles.

It’s hot out, but she stays covered up as she treks La Brea, passing men in black hats and beards who avoid eye contact with her, and the other women in yoga bra tops walking their dogs this Saturday morning.

Lowenstein, 33, looks like any other Orthodox Jewish woman on Shabbat. And that’s just how she wants it. 

Her synagogue in Hancock Park is a little run-down, with linoleum floors and drop-tile ceilings, but it’s full of life, chanting, and swaying. The space is divided between men and women. Lowenstein prays with the female congregants while scanning for threats, her pistol now removed from her case and tucked into the holster under her sweater.

She’s backed up by her longtime friend Srula Chaiton, 32, who oversees a girls’ service down the hall. As Chaiton recites a silent prayer, I notice the outline of her own Glock under her jacket. 

“I carry every week in shul, on a holster on my belt,” said Chaiton.

Lowenstein and Chaiton are licensed, armed security—Orthodox Jewish sharpshooters. To most Jews, that’s like a WASP sex therapist or a short supermodel: a contradiction in terms. And the stereotype of gunless Jews has a strong basis in reality: according to a 2005 report from the American Jewish Committee, Jews have the lowest rate of gun ownership of all religious groups, with just 13 percent of Jewish households owning firearms (compared to 41 percent for non-Jews). A 2017 report on religion and gun ownership found just 10 percent of Jewish respondents own handguns. 

But women like Lowenstein and Chaiton say that’s rapidly changing. 

Mushka (right) and Srula (left) arm themselves with tactical belts at the gun range. (Mark Abramson for The Free Press)

Between 2020 and 2021, antisemitic hate crimes increased by nearly 20 percent, according to the FBI, which also said that Jews accounted for the majority of religious-based hate crimes committed that year. The number of hate crimes targeting Jews was up 36 percent last year, an all-time high according to the Anti-Defamation League.

You can walk into almost any church in America, no questions asked, and worship. But most Jewish synagogues and schools in major American cities have metal detectors and armed guards, a sad reality that reflects our hateful times. There were nearly 3,700 antisemitic incidents recorded last year alone. More than half of the victims were visibly Orthodox.

Now some members of the Orthodox community, like the women at this L.A. synagogue, are carrying themselves. Meet the frum gun club. 

After services, we step outside, and Chaiton opens her jacket to reveal her security badge, gun, and an extra magazine. Her husband, Rabbi Dovber Chaiton, who leads the boys’ service, explained that there is no Jewish law against women using firearms—or training as security guards.

What about the uniform, I ask. According to Orthodox custom, women don’t wear pants, at least not in public—though these cut-off pants are fully covered by a skirt. “We had to get a special ruling,” nodded the rabbi. “It’s about protecting ourselves.”

It used to be that American Jews once looked at European Jews with a kind of pity: It was them, not us, who had to remove visible signs of Jewishness. It was them, not us, who lived in fear, who had armed guards at the doors of their schools and synagogues. But that began to change in 1999, when a white supremacist walked into the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, California, and shot five people, a moment the shooter hoped would become “a wakeup call to America to kill Jews.” 

Michael Masters is the CEO of Secure Community Network, a nonprofit that provides security and training to Jewish groups across the country. While the shooting in 1999 spurred the Jewish community in the Los Angeles area to protect itself, “most of the community did not enact comprehensive security initiatives until far, far later.” 

There were no guards when a massacre erupted at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, leaving 11 dead. (The trial for the gunman started last month, with prosecutors seeking the death penalty.) Nor were there any guards, six months later, at the shooting that killed one woman at the Chabad of Poway in California in 2019, although an off-duty border patrol agent who was among the congregants reportedly tried to disarm the shooter. 

“Poway was the moment for many communities that said this isn’t a one-off, it can happen anywhere,” Masters adds. “What we have realized is we are not going to choose the time and place of the next incident. But we can choose our preparedness.” He says some 70 initiatives have security programs led by former law enforcement. Untold others have armed guards and metal detectors.  

Mushka participates at target practice during training. (Mark Abramson for The Free Press)

Chaiton and Lowenstein said their synagogue—and their community—have faced repeated threats. People in the neighborhood have taunted their children in the street; other times, transients have tried to break into the temple. That’s in large part why they decided to step up as volunteers. 

Another reason is financial. This synagogue already had paid guards outside of the building, but needed another level of protection inside, and other staff were too busy to take on the commitment to train as guards. 

“I felt like I was the only option,” says Srula Chaiton. 

After the Pittsburgh shooting, she asked an influential rabbi if she could train to learn to shoot. To her surprise, he said yes. But the instruction wouldn’t be easy.

Magen Am, or “nation’s shield” in Hebrew, is the L.A.-based nonprofit that taught her. It was co-founded in 2017 by Rabbi Yossi Eilfort, a shooting instructor who told me he grew up in San Diego enduring antisemitic taunts from the neighborhood kids. Those moments hardened him, he said, and he “refused to be a victim,” even going on to enjoy a brief MMA career

Run on a shoestring—about $1.5 million annually, all donated—Magen Am boasts about 20 full-time guards, including former members of the U.S. military and Israeli Defense Forces, who respond to emergencies often in tandem with law enforcement. The group also teaches firearm safety, nonviolent techniques, and combat skills to Jews and non-Jews alike as well as providing armed security to Jewish schools and synagogues. 

“I’ve always believed in fitness and self-education for the Orthodox, which isn’t part of our culture,” said Eilfort, who called women “more accurate shooters than men.”

Traci Tessler, 50, learned about guns from her father when she was growing up in California. After volunteering for her synagogue’s security team, she joined Magen Am in 2020 and now runs the organization’s office.

“I’m Orthodox and I’ve been shooting since I was a kid. Most women don’t have that background,” says Tessler, who homeschooled her children, earned a PhD in preventive medicine at USC, and spent years in medical research. 

“There’s a need in our community. Women want to know how to handle a gun and what to do in an emergency.” 

Chaiton trained at Magen Am for 10 months, learning how to take apart a gun, put it together, hit a target, and bring down an attacker using jiu-jitsu. (She was even tased to know what it feels like). She juggled the training in between her synagogue work, running an overnight summer camp, emceeing bat mitzvahs, and caring for her family of three kids, including a son with special needs.

Rabbi Yossi Eilfort, Dassy Eilfort, and Srula Chaiton at the firing range. (Mark Abramson for Three Free Press)

And she’s already been tested. One night last year, a masked man entered her home. The family had been expecting a visitor, and had left the front door unlocked. Immediately they sprang into action: Dovber secured the children and rushed to call 911 and Magen Am, while Chaiton—unarmed and alone—faced the intruder. She told me she didn’t budge, or panic, even as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a pistol.

“I don’t know if this was the trained response, but my feeling was he didn’t look very confident with his gun,” she said. “As he pulled it out and pointed it at me, I took cover and said ‘I have a gun, I’m going to get it.’ I ran and got it and by the time I was back, he was gone.”

“I wasn’t afraid for myself,” Chaiton added. “I was afraid for my family.” 

Today Chaiton is a licensed security guard with an exposed firearm permit—a qualification that requires her to draw her weapon and “take a shot in 1.8 seconds.” She loves training; it’s important to stay sharp, she said, and when we meet the following day, her non-shooting arm is in a sling from a jiu-jitsu injury.

“No big deal,” she shrugged. 

There are advantages to being a female sharpshooter. For one, “people don’t think you’re security,” Lowenstein explained. “God forbid something happens, shooters get attracted to security first, and my sweater covers my sleeve patches that say Magen Am.”

Mushka Lowenstein’s wardrobe closet where a Magen Am hat sits amid several of her traditional wigs. (Mark Abramson for The Free Press)

Jews are divided on gun rights: the Reform movement supports regulations like background checks and assault weapon bans; many Orthodox Jews are vocal gun rights supporters. (Tradition is split on transporting firearms on Shabbat and in synagogue.) 

“It would be better if these measures weren’t needed but this is the sad reality of where we are today,” said Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, one of the oldest—and largest—Jewish institutions in the city. 

Arming staff isn’t something his group would do, but Leder noted, “I don’t know where it’s written anywhere in halachic law that a woman can’t save a life. And I can’t imagine why anyone would object to it.”

Some Jewish sects, like Satmar—think Netflix’s Shtisel or Unorthodox—shun technology and believe a woman’s role is in the home. Chabad, the group these women belong to, is also Orthodox but far more modern.

“The Torah explicitly states a right to self-defense,” said Deby Goodman, a Chabad woman in Orange County, who has spent about eight years as a member of the Bullets and Bagels gun club. “I take that seriously.”

“I’m 68 years old and I’ve been shooting since I was 8,” added Goodman, who also has a concealed carry permit in order to provide security to her temple members.

Bullets and Bagels is a gun safety and networking group founded about 10 years ago by Fred R. Kogen, a longtime L.A.-area mohel (a doctor who performs circumcisions). Kogen was looking for a Jewish gun club but couldn’t find one, so he started his own, focusing on protection, “not politics,” he told me. The club now has about 150 members; it’s 60–40 Jewish and Christian, with some Muslim members and trainers, too.

“I don’t run the club as a doom and gloom thing,” Kogen said. “It’s a social club.”

The Jewish gun movement isn’t just growing in California, said Tzvi Waldman. He leads the New York State Jewish Gun Club, which started around 2019 and has about 300 members. “I’m trying to build a culture from a Jewish perspective around firearms ownership,” said Waldman, whose father is a rabbi. “I know observant women who are trained and carry to shul. Why not? No one gets between a mother and her cubs.”

Rabbi Eilfort, 31, who runs Magen Am, said he’s pushing for more women to get trained. “We’re building a culture of strong Jews. The goal is to feel secure to be a Jew when you walk down the street.”

Eilfort said Magen Am stopped around 12 home invasions in the Jewish community—without weapons—in the summer of 2020 when some Black Lives Matter protests dissolved into violence, and criminals vandalized area synagogues and looted Jewish-owned institutions.

Mushka Lowenstein outside of her L.A. home with her husband, Shaya, in the foreground. (Mark Abramson for The Free Press)

Since then, Lowenstein and Chaiton told me they’ve seen a rise in hate crimes in the neighborhood. “People are accepting of other cultures but when it comes to Judaism, it’s just not that way,” said Lowenstein, a former biology teacher. “Maybe people think Jews have it good, we control the media, the world. If we controlled the media, wouldn’t we be saying positive things about ourselves?

“A lot of people, even Jews, think Orthodox women are living in the past,” added Lowenstein, who said she watches Netflix and uses Instagram. “We are real women and we contribute and want to be seen like everyone else.”

Sometimes people’s reactions to her visibly Jewish family can surprise her. Last year, Lowenstein said, she was shopping at a supermarket when a black man stared at her son’s gold head covering—called a kippah—and said “Dude, really cool kippah.”

“I went over to him in tears and said ‘thank you for saying that,’ because you’re making us feel welcome and most people don’t,” Lowenstein said. “He was shocked such a small comment made such an impact and he shook my hand.”

The Lowenstein family (L to R) Mushka, Shaya, Dovi, Motty, and Liba outside their L.A. home. (Mark Abramson for The Free Press)

Early on, Eilfort said he buckled under the weight of being a rabbi, leading his family, and running Magen Am. But while these threats are exhausting, they’ve also refocused him, a perseverance he learned from his mother, Nechama, the original frum clubber. 

Nechama is a volunteer security guard at her shul, telling me that her father showed her how to shoot at the range when she was growing up. That’s why she taught her son, Rabbi Yossi, about weapons early on. Then, after a devastating 2008 attack at a Chabad house in Mumbai in which six people were murdered, she decided it was time to take matters into her own hands. 

“At that point,” she recalled over the phone, “I spoke to local police and said ‘I’m going to be carrying a gun all the time, not just to services. And I’m not licensed.’ They said ‘No problem. Start the process to get licensed.’ ” 

Mushka (left) and Srula (right) high-five each other during target practice. (Mark Abramson for The Free Press)

She did and “Now I feel like a superhero. Either you’re a victim or a survivor. I’m no victim,” said Nechema, who is now in her 50s.

“The mindset is women don’t carry guns, certainly not Orthodox women,” she said. “Yossi’s trying to create an environment where it’s more acceptable. Rabbis are strict and they’re having a hard time getting used to it, but it’s becoming more common to see religious women carrying guns.” 

She paused as one of her 15 grandchildren cried out in the background. 

“We’re supposed to be meek Jews,” she said. But “David wasn’t meek. Neither was Deborah. Deborah was a general, a judge, a prophetess who spoke to God. She was strong. A woman.”

Adam Popescu is a writer for The Free Press. Follow him on Twitter @adampopescu.

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