Defending Jewish Los Angeles
There is a legend in the Talmud about two angels who accompany a person home from synagogue on Shabbat eve. If the angels arrive at the Jewish home and all is prepared beautifully, the “good” angel blesses the house — that it should always be so — and the not-so-good angel must say “Amen.” If, however, the house is not ready for Shabbat, the “bad” angel gets to wish for this to continue, and his good counterpart must agree.
Although sometimes stories need to shift their narrative. In the case of what has happened in Los Angeles since early February, there have been a multitude of angels determined to provide protection for the Jews of Los Angeles and its environs. Two particular angels — marketing entrepreneur Remi Franklin and Rabbi Yossi Eilfort — have garnered the most attention for their efforts.
Raised in different circumstances — one, a relatively secular young man growing up in Malibu; the other, the son of a beloved San Diego Chabad rabbi — found strength through the practice of martial arts and a deep feeling for Am Yisroel Chai, which led each to their current roles protecting the Jewish community from the kind of antisemitic attacks that are becoming all too common throughout the United States.
Remi Franklin’s journey to Jewish defender began as a kid growing up in Malibu.
“I started with Tae Kwon Do when I was 4, but it wasn’t ninja enough,” he recalled with a chuckle.
He soon found his ideal sport in karate, joining a dojo run by Gerry Blanck in Pacific Palisades. Franklin trained in different belt levels and then studied other practices, including jiujitsu, his current favorite. He credits the discipline he learned from martial arts with helping him to complete a bachelor’s degree in political science and then eventually launching his own business, the marketing firm Light Switch Digital.
When it came to religious affiliation, he remembers becoming bar mitzvah, but says little else of Judaism held his interest in his youth. It was only when he connected with a business partner who invited him to Chabad services that his practice in Judaism developed in earnest. Feeling more connected with the Jewish community made it an easy decision to reach out when he heard about the attacks in Los Angeles this past May, and to form the Shabbos Angels (also called the Shabbat Angels).
“When the sushi thing happened, I got pissed,” he said, referring to the May 18 incident at Sushi Fumi on La Cienega Boulevard in the Beverly Grove area, where a group of people dressed in black and toting a Palestinian flag attacked diners. “I thought, this was the next level, this can’t happen.”
He put out notes on Instagram, offering to walk people to synagogue and encouraging his friends and social media followers to join in. Soon, he had a crew of about 50 volunteers and began connecting with local rabbis, mostly in the ultra-Orthodox community, to match the volunteers to those who needed escorts to and from services or to and from businesses in recognizably Jewish neighborhoods.
Franklin said that many of the Shabbos Angels are former military — U.S. Marines or Israeli Defense Force soldiers — and mostly men, although a few women have become involved since some women in the Orthodox community are more comfortable walking with females. The Angels also gained celebrity support from actor Jonathan Lipnicki (“Jerry Maguire”, “Broil”), who became Franklin’s “second angel” on many outings.
Franklin looks at the Angel’s work as a supplement to local law enforcement and to other local security groups, not a replacement.
“There are organizations like Magen Am, and they’re amazing — but they only have so many people,” he noted. “Our job is not to be there to fight, but to protect the people we’re with. We are there as more of a deterrent. We do everything we can to de-escalate these situations.”
In response, he said, there seems to be fewer incidents — although some do persist, like a recent encounter with anti-vaxxers verbally attacking a Jewish restaurant owner.
“There are people still coming out and screaming things. It’s a lot of people who are Palestinian, or portraying themselves as Palestinian, or people from the [Black Lives Matter] movement who can come across as very aggressive,” he said. “On the other side are a lot of very ‘woke’ individuals who are coming to scream ‘Free Palestine’ at a bunch of Orthodox Jews. There’s been every single kind of person you can imagine yelling things like ‘Heil Hitler’ and ‘Death to the Jews’. We do report everything to the police, but they are so understaffed — they can’t be everywhere.”
While Franklin’s involvement has grown steadily since his first Instagram message in May, Rabbi Yossi Eilfort’s mission to protect and to serve began in February, when families reached out to request help from his organization, Magen Am. If Franklin’s mostly secular upbringing made him less likely to be as involved in Jewish defense as he is now, then Eilfort’s history as the son of an Orthodox rabbi made him an even more unusual choice to found a security and defense training company. The son of Rabbi Yeruchem Eilfort of Chabad of La Costa, Eilfort attributes his early pursuit of martial arts to his parents’ positive and open attitude — and to a resistance to stereotypes.
“I have an out-of-the-box family; my father did not grow up Orthodox, my mother did not grow up in a religious home,” Eilfort said. “So I wasn’t in a bubble — I was able to explore. And living where we did in San Diego, my friends were Jewish but none of my neighbors were, so I had many different types of friends growing up.”
Eilfort says he was an active child, and interested in staying healthy. His martial arts journey began when an assistant rabbi of his father’s who was taking a class in krav maga asked young Eilfort to be his sparring partner. Later, when he first became a rabbi himself, he walked into his local martial arts gym to observe and try out some classes, and found he excelled at it. Within weeks, his teacher asked to sponsor him to represent the gym in a tournament.
“He spent a couple of months trying to convince me, but since all the fights were on Friday and Saturday, I was able to say, ‘Shabbat, can’t do it’,” he said. So his teacher found a fight on a Sunday, told Eilfort he’d already registered him, and that was that. (Eilfort did check with his own rabbi to make sure such activity was kosher, and was told that as long as it was for self-defense and fitness, such activity would be acceptable.)
Currently, Eilfort’s focus is on running Magen Am, the nonprofit organization he co-founded with partner Brad Levy to train licensed, armed security teams within the Jewish community. The organization is now working with about a dozen L.A. synagogues, most of them Orthodox, on both martial arts and weapons training, but also advocacy and community relations building. The group also runs communitywide self-defense trainings throughout the Los Angeles area, including how to read body language, how to project confidence in threatening situations, and otherwise make the Jewish community a safer and stronger place.
This is especially important for the upcoming High Holidays. Last year, under COVID-19 restrictions, synagogues were mostly closed; instead, members of the community were meeting in smaller backyard groups to pray. Eilfort sat down with members of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) to work out a foot patrol route which would provide for more points of contact and better protection. He plans to meet this year with the LAPD for another joint exercise that will help bring more resources to the Jewish community in September.
Remarking on the current increase in antisemitic incidents, Eilfort said he was glad that Magen Am was ahead of the curve, starting with local patrols back in February before the situation between Israel and Hamas brought out more attacks.
“Our philosophy is we should not be reacting to attacks; we should be proactive in stopping them,” Eilfort said, adding that while there have always been antisemitic acts as long as there has been a Jewish people, the recent rise in crime has been troubling. “People don’t feel safe being outside with their kids; I think it’s sad that in the United States, people are afraid to let their kids play outside.
“There was definitely a high point a couple of months ago; we are not where we were during Shavuot with the caravans and hateful incidents here. It is calmer now, but it pushes the bar of what was acceptable a little further, so people feel they can get away with more than they could a year ago.”
Franklin agrees that antisemitism is a perennial issue, even in blue-leaning Los Angeles. And he, too, senses a change in the latest attacks.
“I would say it’s a different version of antisemitism,” he said. “It’s become mainstream and acceptable, and Jews don’t have enough say to make a difference. If we were to swap the words ‘being used’ for that of any other race, they ‘the perpetrators’ would be done, they’d be shut down. But there are no consequences for what people are saying.”
Which is why these two angels plan to continue walking with their communities well into 5782.
Staying Safe During the High Holidays
Following are some recommendations from Rabbi Yossi Eilfort and Remi Franklin on how to keep yourself and your community safe during this High Holidays season.
- Consider professional training for your synagogue or havurah if you have not done so already.
- Having a greeter system is important. Eilfort notes that “Security is the first face you see — they should be trained well enough to be inviting to those who are invited, and univiting for people who should not be invited.”
- Although it can be challenging during the holidays, make sure doors are locked when they should be. “We can have an open door figuratively, but not literally,” Eilfort said. “At a minimum, you should have a locked and monitored door so someone who’s not supposed to get inside will not.”
- Maintain good situational awareness by paying a ttention to your surroundings. Walking with your head down, whether to watch your feet or your phone, can keep you from noticing important details that can alert you that something is not right.
- Along those lines, if you notice activity or behavior that does not seem to match the environment — for example, someone carrying a gym bag into shul — say something.
- Avoid walking alone to and from synagogue, especially in the evening. Make a plan ahead of time to walk in groups.
- Finally, don’t just rely on faith as your best defense. “People say, ‘HaShem protects us,’ but Hashem needs to have a vessel to provide that protection,” Franklin said. “You remember the old joke about the drowning man, where HaShem sends the canoe and the boat and helicopter? Remember that there’s help available, but you need to take the help that is offered.”