One night, while working his beat in a rough section of Kensington, Philadelphia police officer Jeff Rabinovitch was assaulted by a woman who was drunk. He instinctively grabbed her arm, twisted his body and brought her to the ground. It wasn't too hard, he said, considering that he'd practiced the move just the night before — in Krav Maga class.
"It saved her from getting hurt. She punched me in the face, and I didn't have to hit her back. I was able to grab her arm and take her down," said the 40-year-old Jewish officer. "I was able to secure her and cuff her without having to strike her or use pepper spray."
Krav Maga is a close-combat fighting system that was developed in Israel for soldiers in the Israel Defense Force. Rabinovitch learned his moves a bit closer to home, at the Israeli Krav Maga U.S. Training Center in Hamilton, N.J.
David Kahn, part owner of the center, said that while training regular civilians remains their main focus, he and his instructors work as much as they can with law-enforcement officers. Sometimes, they come on their own, like Rabinovitch, but many times an entire unit will attend in an official capacity.
Just last week, for example, he trained several U.S. marshalls and, since becoming an instructor, he's worked with members of the FBI, the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Sea Marshalls, Federal Air Marshalls and police from various states. He and his staff even teach in four different police academies.
"Budgets are always limited, and we want to get them the best training available, and, obviously, they think this is it," said Kahn. "It's a great way to solidify the relationship between the law-enforcement community and the Jewish community."
Learning Krav Maga does not just mean throwing punches and kicks. The studio is full of boxes filled with soft plastic knives and fake guns, and Kahn teaches his students how to divert the enemy's attention, stun them, then take away the weapon.
"Most important is common sense," said Kahn. "If someone is holding a gun to your head, obviously, they want something and nothing is worth getting shot over. We advise that you cooperate with the gunman," said Kahn.
With mixed martial arts growing in popularity, and with the Ultimate Fighting Championship and Pride Fighting drawing large audiences, why hasn't Krav Maga entered the ring?
"What they are barred from doing, we emphasize," said Kahn, noting that Krav Maga teaches strikes to the groin, eye-gouging and biting, techniques that are forbidden in MMA competitors. "We would never win a UFC fight. We would lose automatically because we'd get disqualified."
The Krav Maga center even has a sign outside the gym that reads "Clean Shoes & Dirty Fighting Welcome."
In opening the studio, Kahn partnered with James Gandolfini, who played the top New Jersey mob boss in "The Sopranos." Gandolfini became interested after training privately with Kahn.
Kahn also noted that the self-defense system would not just benefit adults: "I think that every Hebrew school, yeshiva and day school would benefit from it. Not just because it inspires pride, but the kids would get great exercise."
After punching, kicking and kneeing his way through a recent class, 40-year-old Lane Joseph had worked up quite a sweat. After two months of training, he said that he's become more athletic and more self-assured.
"You have a different perspective in confidence when you're going to your car at night," said Joseph, an Orthodox Jew from Lakewood, N.J. "You just feel like you're not going to be a victim."