When one davens in shul and looks around, can anyone guess which congregants are trained to respond to a gunman or a stabber? In the aftermath of the anti-Semitic rampage that killed 15 Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last October, self-defense instructor Avi Avramcheyiv brought his school to Kew Gardens, where he led a practice terrorism drill at the Ner Mordechai (formerly Shaare Tova) Congregation. “Six to eight people in each synagogue should be trained so that there is no repeat of Pittsburgh,” said Avramcheyiv.
He scheduled the drill to take place during Minchah last Sunday, with congregants aware that at the end of davening, an actor from his school would run into the beis k’neses. With an uptick in anti-Semitic incidents across the city in recent months, the presentation was covered by reporters from NY1 News, PIX11, the Queens Chronicle, and Israeli Channel One.
In one simulation, Avramcheyiv placed PIX11 News reporter Cristian Benavides within inches of a toy gun held by an assistant instructor. With split second thinking, Benavides was trained to push the pistol away with one hand and use his other hand to push the gunman’s hand in the opposite direction. “This is Israeli counter-terrorism training. You try to control the person, and [get] control of the situation,” said Avramcheyiv.
As davening concluded, an actor rushed into the shul, tackled immediately by three of Avramcheyiv’s students, who pushed the knife out of the attacker’s hand, brought him down on the floor, restrained his arms, and then tied them with plastic handcuffs. Admittedly, their action happened very quickly and it helped that the attacker made his presence known with loud words, as happened in Pittsburgh. Their choice of seats near the entrance also made sense, as their presence would prevent an attacker from going further into the sanctuary. “Everyone else must go down on the floor. Don’t try to be a ninja; leave the work to those who are trained.”
The Israeli-born Krav Maga instructor earned his black belt at age 16 and represented his country in international competitions. After service in the army, he moved to New York and opened up the New York Self-Defense Academy in Kew Gardens Hills.
Avramcheyiv reads about active-shooter and terrorist attacks, learning about how people respond. “At the nightclub in Orlando, nobody did anything while the shooter was relocating. But at a business meeting in Tel Aviv, somebody threw a chair at the attacker,” said Avramcheyiv. “It is about staying alive. It is about practice.”