The small sign on the door of Nature’s Delight kosher restaurant in the shadow of the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York is easy to miss: “Firearms Permitted On These Premises”.
As a wave of fear spreads throughout the US Jewish community triggered by October 7, such signs are becoming much more common as Jews have started arming themselves.
Many who were staunchly anti-gun the day before the terror attack are now applying for their own firearms licences as they look on in horror at an exponential rise in antisemitism.
More of them are women, by some accounts, than men. They fear that, in a country where there are more guns than people and mass shootings are so common they rarely make a dent in the daily news cycle, something very bad is coming.
David Khan, the owner of Nature’s Delight in the village of Monticello, needs only to reflect on his own family’s history, as he pours steaming coffee from a big diner-style pot, to explain why. And why he is making his 20-year-old son, Adir, get a handgun permit.
“If you’re a Jew, you’re a target,” he says. “My father didn’t know how to use a gun when he went to Israel and had to learn quickly when he fought in 1948. I want my son to be prepared.”
David is one of many turning to an ex-IDF marksman, who has been tried and tested in battle, as their saviour. Yonatan Stern, 40, is director of Cherev Gidon, Israeli Tactical Training Academy.
Sitting in Nature’s Delight eating his breakfast and chatting with a class before taking them out to train, you’d never notice that Yonatan is carrying a Sig Sauer P226 handgun on his belt. His jacket hangs over it.
“I remember back about 20 years ago the idea of Jews with guns in America was very fringe. It was considered very much of an extreme position,” Yonatan explains.
‘Now I am seeing, since October 7, all these people who are hardcore, lifelong Democrats, who contributed to anti-gun groups and were actively pushing for British-style gun control in America, have completely turned around and changed their attitude.
“Since October 7, I would say most American Jews support the idea of having armed congregants, and synagogues support the idea of private gun ownership. You see people going into synagogues openly carrying guns all over America. It’s normalised now.
“I was just contacted last week by a woman who said, ‘I’ve always hated guns. The idea of having a gun is disgusting. I’ve always been terrified of guns, but now I want to get a gun because I see that we are in danger.’ She saw on TV these massive protests by hundreds of thousands of Palestinian supporters, Hamas supporters in Washington and in New York City, calling to globalise the intifada, which really means, let’s bring terrorism to America, let’s attack American Jews.
“I’m getting a lot more women and maybe older people than in the past who were terrified of guns. Their fear and their political ideology, which is anti-gun, has now been overcome by their fear of terrorism.
“People in America are realising you can’t rely on the government. Your defence is on you. You have to protect yourself and your family and those around you. You can’t wait for the police to arrive. It’ll be too late. You’ve got to be armed.
“Really what’s different is the urgency that these people have. People are calling me almost crying on the phone, panicking, desperate, begging me to train them immediately, and I never used to get that in the past.”
In Yonatan’s class today are Jack Luster, 75, Chaim, 29, and David’s son Adir. Jack wants to brush up on his shooting and Chaim and Adir are doing their mandatory 18 hours’ training before they can get their handgun permit.
Yonatan leads the class in his Jeep to a shooting range in the woods 15 minutes away. Usually he would train at his large compound in Pennsylvania.
We unload bags of rifles and handguns and a large can of ammunition and carry them through the woods into a beautiful sunlit clearing. It’s an old quarry but thousands of spent ammunition cartridges underfoot attest it is now a makeshift range.
Yonatan teaches the IDF doctrine that has been developed over decades of fighting counter-terrorism warfare. It prepares students for real-life situations.
First, he runs the men through the five stages of drawing a handgun from a holster and firing to turn it into one fluid motion. The silence of our corner of the Catskills is broken by a volley of ten shots fired by each man.
Jack is not new to gun ownership. He got his permit five years ago. But with the world changing since October 7, he wants to make sure he’s sharp. He keeps a small .22 pistol in his coat pocket.
When he goes to shul, he says, “It’s concealed and no one knows I have it. But if there’s someone who shouldn’t be coming through the door, they’ll know.”
Yonatan goes through one-handed shooting, in case you have to dial 911 at the same time, and kneeling to reload, to clear a blockage or take cover.
Adir, a real estate agent, recently bought a shotgun for which he doesn’t need a licence in New York State. “The shotgun is for the house or business, I don’t carry it around with me,” he said. “I was thinking about this even before October 7 because we’ve always been a target.”
Chaim wants a firearm to protect his family. “I just felt with what’s going on around the world, now is the perfect time. I feel like you want to be prepared.
“As the saying always goes, ‘I’d rather be judged by 12 than be carried by six.’”
Elise Mordos, 32, a trail runner who lives in Boulder, Colorado, is taking firearms classes in January. Colorado doesn’t require any training to own a gun. “I live alone and had been contemplating getting a gun, but after October 7 I decided to get one. I hope I never use it, I just want to have it for my own security.
“You think you’re safe until you’re not. No one on those kibbutzim thought they would need anything like this, they were just eating breakfast and they got massacred. It was a rude awakening for a lot of us.
‘The vast majority of non-Jews don’t understand. It’s not about if I feel safe or unsafe. I’m just not willing to take that risk. These terrorists hate Jews but Americans are second on their list.”
Yonatan hands me an Israeli Jericho handgun: a heavy, metal weapon that is less jumpy than lighter, more modern polymer weapons such as the Glock. It’s easy to hit the target with it. However, the quick thinking and lightning reflexes needed to deal with an attacker in real life are another thing entirely.
The class moves on to rifle shooting, more specifically with the AR-15, an assault weapon associated with some of the worst mass shootings in the US. The loud crack of the pistols is replaced with a deep boom of the rifle that resonates inside your body. It is a more precise and deadly weapon, accurate over long distances. Now the men are hitting the bullseye with greater ease.
The AR-15 is surprisingly light and recoilless. It’s a sophisticated piece of machinery that is devastatingly good at the job it was designed for: killing people. A red dot sight scope makes hitting the target even easier. It is a deadly tool that is almost frighteningly easy to wield.
“A rifle is a much more powerful, much more effective weapon. You can never compare the power that a rifle has with a pistol,” Yonatan says.
Providing high-quality gun training for the Jewish community is much more than just a business for Yonatan: it’s deeply personal.
“America is partially like Germany in 1938, not fully, but there are echoes of it. My grandparents were Holocaust survivors. They survived Auschwitz and two of their children were murdered in Auschwitz. So I have a personal connection to this.
“When I see antisemitism happening, for me it really means never again. A lot of people are saying never again is now.
“I’m a reservist in the IDF, and I was contemplating going to Israel now to fight in the war. I came to the conclusion that the best thing to do is to stay here because the Jewish community in America needs me more than ever right now.
“I am one of the few people that’s been preparing for this for years. I’ve been preparing to defend against antisemitic attacks, against terror attacks, way before a lot of other people have. I’m very well prepared, very well armed. So I’m not living in fear, whereas a lot of other people are.”
It is with fear rather than enthusiasm that the Jewish community in America is embracing gun ownership, with long-held principles jettisoned to deal with a frightening new world. It’s an insurance policy they feel forced to take out to protect themselves and their families: one they hope never to cash in.