As Chaos Erupted During George Floyd Protests in Los Angeles, Local Jewish Security Group Mobilized to Protect Fearful Community
As unrest, violence, and rampant looting flared up in Los Angeles last weekend in the wake of the death of the unarmed George Floyd in police custody, one organization had its eyes trained upon the safety of the local Jewish community. Magen Am, a licensed security group, worked to quickly fill the void left by the slow-to-respond and heavily bogged down Los Angeles Police Department.
“We protect people,” said Yossi Eilfort, a co-founder of Magen Am (“nation’s shield”), a nonprofit whose mission began as one of self-defense, but has matured into community security. “Our main goal is the protection of life and that includes everybody,” he said.
Magen Am has partially focused on threats or aggression in or around homes. Eilfort said, “Fortunately, we have not been engaged in any violence, but we have deescalated and deterred potential threats, at times politely escorting some people out of the neighborhood.”
The purview of Magen Am has included responding to calls about suspicious persons or vehicles; being a presence when establishments or homeowners feel under threat; accompanying Hatzalah ambulances into areas that have experienced riots; and delivering drinks and refreshments to police and National Guardsmen. “We carry cold water, coffee, and energy drinks which we offer to police officers or National Guardsmen whom we see. In these riots, we thought it was important for them to hear how much we the Jewish community values them,” Eilfort told the Algemeiner.
The group has responded to about ten reports of home break-ins, fielded hundreds of WhatsApp requests from community members, and delivered dozens of cans of pepper spray, another volunteer who did not wish to be named told The Algemeiner.
Volunteers for Magen Am were also involved in protecting a synagogue last Saturday night. In a video that circulated on social media and was verified by the Algemeiner, a member of the group described fending off vandals intent on defacing the synagogue Shaarei Tefila in the Fairfax neighborhood of Los Angeles.
“They were spray-painting this whole area,” the volunteer says in the video, but were unable to damage the synagogue before “I sent them off.”
Noting that several nearby stores had been “pillaged” and the area “had tear gas galore,” the volunteer nonetheless noted, “We defended Shaarei Tefila today.”
Another synagogue, Congregation Beth El, also in the Fairfax district, was spray-painted with the phrases “F*** Israel” and “Free Palestine,” local NBC affiliate Channel 4 reported last week. The Kosher Mensch Bakery and Kitchen was among the Jewish stores damaged. Another store, Ariel’s Kosher Market, had a window broken. Eilfort told the Algemeiner, “Thankfully no Jewish stores were destroyed, although we are still very unhappy at the damage that occurred.” Unrest began on Saturday, May 30, which was also a Jewish holiday. A citywide curfew was ended the following Thursday.
Magen Am’s actions have earned the appreciation of some in the local community.
Rabbi David Eliezrie, Director of North County Chabad Center and spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Meir HaCohen in Yorba Linda, a suburb of Los Angeles, wrote on Facebook on Friday, “This week 5 synagogues, 3 Jewish Schools, numerous Jewish businesses … were vandalized. Friends and relatives have told me of numerous break-ins, home invasions, and threats to life and property.”
He added, “This only subsided after volunteer Jewish security patrols began monitoring violence block by block.”
“I never imagined that, in California, Jews would fear for their lives because of open antisemitism,” Eliezrie said.
Sergeant Garcia with the California Army National Guard recorded a greeting in which he thanked the Jewish community for their support during this difficult time.
Eilfort told the Algemeiner, “We’re just looking to bridge the gap to cover from the time when there is a call for help to the time that law enforcement arrives.” Elifort noted that one police official said he viewed Magen Am as part of the future of a public-private first-responder relationship.
Eilfort brings to bear several skills related to defense. He is a certified range safety officer, a private patrol operator with an exposed firearm permit, and was a sponsored Mixed Martial Artist who won an amateur bout. He learned Krav Maga from his father’s assistant rabbi. Aside from the focus on the use of force, which is only a last resort, Eilfort and Magen Am argue for education and practice in security theory, communication, and preparedness.
“I like to say that security is 90% communication,” Eilfort told the Algemeiner.
He says that includes reading body language and understanding other non-verbal cues.
Magen Am offers community classes and training. Eilfort told the Algemeiner that the more prepared one is in advance with training and planning, the more one is likely to be able to take measured steps to do the right thing in the right way.
The group currently has 38 trained members, serving the Fairfax, La Brea, and Pico-Robertson neighborhoods of Los Angeles.