Join our brand new verified AMN Telegram channel and get important news uncensored!

‘We don’t feel safe.’ As antisemitism threat rises, South Florida’s Jews arm themselves

Will Farrugia, director of training at the Gun World shooting range in Deerfield Beach, Florida, helps student Sandi Lazar, who is Jewish, during an introduction to handguns course on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel/TNS))

“To be honest with you, I hate guns,” Peter, 76, shouted over the sound of gunshots Saturday afternoon as his wife took aim at a target at Gun World in Deerfield Beach. “But it’s better us than someone else.”

The Jewish couple had arrived for their Intro to Handguns lesson with Florida Firearms Training about noon. Peter, who asked to keep his last name private for safety reasons, had shot a rifle decades ago; his wife had never shot a gun before. By the end of the day they would be returning home with one.

So would Justine Youngleson, 58, and Sandi Lazar, 65, a South African Jewish couple from Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, and Jackie Rubin, 64, a former orthodox Jew who converted to Christianity, who wore a T-shirt with a giant heart on it and described herself as a “very peaceful person.”

Firearms instructor Bob Pruitt talks with student Jackie Rubin, a former orthodox Jew who converted to Christianity, during an introduction to handguns course at the Gun World shooting range. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel/TNS)

Across South Florida, Jewish residents are buying guns and learning to use them, many of them older, more liberal-leaning people who never thought they’d touch a gun in their lives. Spouses are dragging each other to lessons, children are going with parents. Introductory shooting classes are booked up months into the future, even on the Sabbath, because people are so desperate for slots.

Still others are buying security cameras, taking self-defense classes like Krav Maga, the Israeli martial arts that focuses on surviving real-life scenarios, contemplating leaving jewelry at home, and removing mezuzahs from their doors, as they speak of a fear they have not felt before.

‘A huge blip’

On the door leading into owner Kim Waltuch’s office at Gun World, a picture of a menorah reading “Happy Chanukah” sits adjacent to a sticker of a Glock.

Her office is similarly cluttered: Piles of papers, a mug reading “Boss Lady,” sound-canceling headphones, and a box of chocolate ammo cover her desk. On the wall are children’s drawings next to a framed picture of Hebrew word for love. The kids make the drawings while they wait for their parents to be done shooting, Waltuch explained.

Peter, who is Jewish, fires his gun during an introduction to handguns course at the Gun World shooting range in Deerfield Beach, Florida, on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel/TNS)

In the last month, Gun World has had a “surge” in interest in guns, Waltuch said. So many people want lessons, they began offering double the amount per week.

“As soon as the guns have been going in, they’re going out,” she explained.

As she spoke, people kept popping in to say hello; the store was crowded. One of the customers was Broward County Commissioner Michael Udine, an outspoken supporter of Israel who reiterated the same motives as everyone else: “I just thought, with everything going on in the world, it’s better to be educated.”

Florida Firearms Training has had so many requests for the Introduction to Handguns course that it is booked all the way into December, said Will Farrugia, the company’s director of training, who led Saturday’s lesson, which was also on the Jewish Sabbath.

In an average week, FFT sees about 40 students in its intro class, Farrugia said. Now they’re looking at 80 to 90 students.

“There’s definitely a blip on the graph, a huge blip of just an influx of new shooters,” he said. “Of which I would say fifty to sixty percent are Jewish.”

Sandi Lazar, who is Jewish, shows off her target during an introduction to handguns course at the Gun World shooting range in Deerfield Beach, Florida, on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel/TNS)

The students are not gun nuts, or even necessarily conservative. Many know little to nothing about guns.

These are “people that have never thought of buying a gun, that are now saying ‘I need a gun,’” Farrugia said. “It’s all for the same reason. There’s that concern of, ‘Can something happen here? Can something happen to my family? I need to have a way of defending my family and my home.’ Sad, but that’s where we’re at.”

On Saturday, students spoke of their dislike for guns at the same time as they prepared to buy them, their own shooting targets in their hands.

Lazar said that she still thinks guns are bad, and she does not believe she should have them while driving around or in the supermarket, an opinion that did not change Saturday.

“She’s the neurotic one,” Lazar said, gesturing to Youngleson. It was Youngleson’s idea to buy the gun, and Youngleson said that she was going to do just that, but Lazar needed to know how to use it if it was going to be in the house.

“This is not what you think you’ll be doing at 58,” Youngleson said.

Need for self-defense is critical

The heightened fears aren’t present only in gun-training classes.

Lazar and Youngelson have bought Ring cameras and lights for their home. Growing numbers of Jewish residents are looking for situational awareness or self-defense classes like Krav Maga, said Carson Nightwine, the director of community security for the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County.

“Never has the need for self-defense been more critical,” reads a Facebook post from the Ruth & Norman Rales Jewish Family Services, advertising a Krav Maga class in early November.

The owner of AIKMO Krav Maga in Oakland Park, who asked not to be named for safety reasons, said that he had seen a small uptick in the number of students in his own classes, as well as a larger increase in synagogues asking for workshops.

While they’re warming up, students trade stories of having their cars slapped at stoplights or being told to “burn in hell” for putting up posters of Israeli hostages, he said.

He tries to keep the class positive but practical, in the spirit of Krav Maga, which is meant to address real-life threats. At synagogues, AIKMO teaches kidnapping prevention, self-defense, knife and gun defense, forced entry and active shooter drills.

“I hate to say it’s become necessary and timely,” the owner said. “If we lived in a better world I’d be happy to be put out of business. This would be the new yoga; we’d do this for fun.”

Rising antisemitism threat

Since Hamas terrorists massacred over 1,400 Israelis on Oct. 7, national and local officials began warning the public of the heightened potential for antisemitic incidents and hate crimes. But those early statements turned increasingly ominous as hatred brewed and the Israel-Hamas war stretched on with a bombing campaign that has killed thousands of Palestinian civilians.

In one week, a Jewish cemetery in Vienna was sprayed with swastikas and set on fire. Stars of David were spray-painted outside of buildings in Paris. And in Dagestan, Russia, a mob of protesters stormed a plane from Israel and searched a hotel, looking for Jews.

On Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray told members of Congress that the terrorism threat to Americans, already elevated in 2023, had increased “to a whole other level” due to the war and warned of “historic” levels of antisemitism.

For residents of South Florida’s predominantly Jewish neighborhoods and cities, already on alert, a different kind of fear followed Oct. 7.

“This is the first time I really feel unsafe in the U.S.,” said Michele Lazarow, a Hallandale Beach city commissioner who is Jewish. “Maybe it’ll finally be when I get a firearm.”

The chabad houses that pepper Hallandale Beach always used to make her feel safe. Now she wonders if, like herself, the city is a target.

“I don’t even want to say it,” she told the Sun Sentinel on Tuesday. “There’s a very large Jewish community.”

Already, stirrings of hate have emerged in South Florida; in Parkland last Saturday, a group of masked minors shouted threats at Jewish congregants as they left synagogue, according to deputies and Rep. Jared Moskowitz, who belongs to the synagogue.

Palm Beach County has seen an uptick in reported incidents since Oct. 7, said Nightwine, the community security director. At the same time, rumors, false threats and hate speech have exploded online, which add to people’s fears.

He spends much of his time trying to distinguish misinformation from real threats.

“Just getting to what is actually credible and providing the community with a sense of safety, and the amount of just utter hate speech, and these threats, it’s a colossal work,” Nightwine said.

Islamophobic incidents and hate crimes have also risen nationwide since the attacks. In Illinois, a landlord is accused of stabbing a 6-year-old Palestinian-American boy to death, shouting “you Muslims must die.” The Council on American-Islamic Relations has reported the largest wave in incidents since 2015, when then-presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States.

But as home to one of the nation’s largest Jewish populations, South Florida has long contended with antisemitism. Over the two years prior to 2023, antisemitic incidents had already sharply increased in South Florida, though they were largely perpetrated by right-wing, neo-Nazi groups, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

Almost 60% of all religion-based hate crimes in the U.S. in 2020 targeted Jews, more than any other group, despite the fact that they account for only 2% of the U.S population, according to the FBI.

Since the Oct. 7 attacks, antisemitic incidents across the country have increased nearly 400%, mostly attributed to pro-Palestine and anti-Israel sentiment and protests. Antisemitic rhetoric has also increased on the right; the ADL reported an over 1,000% increase in “the daily average of violent messages mentioning Jews and Israel” on right-wing extremist Telegram channels.

On Thursday, when Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody visited the Florida Department of Law Enforcement office in Boynton Beach for a confidential security meeting, a reporter asked whether she thought Palm Beach County was vulnerable.

“It’s no coincidence we chose to come to South Florida to make sure we’re imploring our communities to stay on guard,” Moody replied.

‘We’re Jewish, we don’t feel safe’

Kayla, 22, went to a gun range with her parents last month at her mother’s request. Her family had shot guns once, in Israel, where the recent college grad, who asked to keep her last name private for safety reasons, was supposed to move on Oct. 10. The plans are now delayed indefinitely, though that has not spared her family worry as antisemitic incidents unfold across the world, including the U.S.

“We were like ‘okay, we don’t really feel safe anymore,’” said Kayla, who lives in Hollywood. “We want to arm ourselves, especially because we’re visibly Jewish and we go to synagogue. Every aspect of our daily lives is Jewish: The supermarket, the restaurants we go to, and the neighborhood we live in.”

Soon after submitting her request, she got a call from Steve Triana, a local firearms instructor who works for Florida Defense Training and runs his own company, Triana Training Concepts.

When Kayla, her mother, and her 63-year-old father arrived at the range for their lesson, he asked them for their back story and why they chose to learn, as he does every lesson.

“If you’re coming and you’re over twenty-one, my question is, ‘why now?’” he explained, referring to the legal buying age in Florida. There’s always a reason, something that makes the person feel unsafe in a way they hadn’t before.

Reluctantly, Kayla shared hers.

“It’s always kind of scary to tell people ‘We’re Jewish, we don’t feel safe,’” she told the Sun Sentinel. “I told him anyways, ‘We’re Jewish, we’re really not feeling safe.’”

Triana, it turned out, was also Jewish. He told Kayla’s family that they were not the first to call.

His evenings have been booked with students like them since Oct. 7. In the last two-and-a-half weeks, he told the Sun Sentinel on Tuesday, he has had 18 students, 14 of whom are Jewish, what he estimates is a 90% increase in Jewish students since before the war.

He knows they’re Jewish because he asks, but also because many are openly orthodox. Some have told him they’re rabbis; others come in with yarmulkes on. Like those in Saturday’s class, many are older, often couples.

For Triana, the influx began four days after the war broke out, when the company he works for, Florida Defense Training, began sending a large number of new students his way.

The fact that most of them were Jewish and Triana is also Jewish was a coincidence, said Carlos Gutierrez, the company’s co-owner. But word has since spread to others in the community; Kayla told Triana she’d share his contact information with her synagogue.

For Gun World, word-of-mouth in the Jewish community has also brougth new business. People in the community want to support a Jewish-owned business, Waltuch explained, even though, she added, “as a nice Jewish girl who owns a gun range, I like to go under the radar.”

A political shift?

The new interest in guns perhaps signals a broader shift since Oct. 7 and its aftermath as Jewish South Floridians re-examine their politics.

On the right, Gov. Ron DeSantis has used his pro-Israel stance as a selling point, sending law enforcement officers to protect synagogues and schools, decrying left-wing protests on college campuses and criticizing the Biden administration for sending aid to civilians in Gaza.

Rabbi Mark Rosenberg of Miami-Dade, a chaplain for Florida Highway Patrol, thanked DeSantis publicly on “behalf of the Jewish community” at the news conference in Boynton Beach on Thursday, saying that “Florida has emerged as a leader during troubled times.”

But many of South Florida’s Jewish voters have leaned away from DeSantis and the right, where antisemitism has also mobilized extremists.

“A lot of my friends who are liberal Jews are very, very confused right now,” said Triana, the firearms instructor. “They are struggling to make sense of the world. The world they saw on 10/6 is not what they’re realizing is the way the world worked.”

Commissioner Lazarow, a self-proclaimed liberal, said that she, too, had recently begun to question her political leanings.

“I used to say I vote Democrat, woman, Jewish,” she said. “Now I vote woman, Jewish, maybe Democrat.”

Before the war, Lazarow’s Jewish identity was rarely foremost in her mind. She would have mezuzahs on her door and wear a Star of David around her neck and think nothing of it. Now they are conscious decisions.

“This is the first time in my life I’ve ever worried about wearing the Jewish star,” she said incredulously. “Now I’m wearing it as a resistance. As a symbol of resistance.”

By the end of class on Saturday, some students described a sense of empowerment mixed into their fear and aversion to guns.

“That’s good, honey!” Peter said Saturday, as his wife hesitantly lifted her paper target, the bullet holes a bit off from the center, but still very much within the silhouette. “Don’t worry, you would stop them.”

Each time Rubin finished her turn shooting, she was so nervous that her hands shook. But as class neared an end, she appeared more determined.

“I think I know what I want,” she said, walking over to where some of the other students were sitting, repeating it out loud as she scrawled it on the back of her target: “A Smith and Wesson, nine millimeter.”

The 64-year-old says her friends think she’s crazy for buying a gun, but her Jewish family doesn’t. And even though she no longer practices the religion, Rubin said, she is still a Jew, she doesn’t know what is coming next, and she wants to protect herself.

“I’ve seen the way the world is changing,” she explained. “I need to change with the world.”


© 2023 South Florida Sun Sentinel

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.