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My Day at the Shooting Range with a Merry Band of Bubbies

T.A. Frank

When I decided I wanted to learn how to handle a gun, even if only to be able to remove the bullets, I found that most firearms classes in Los Angeles demanded too much in time and money. Except for one, called JewsCanShoot. For $125, it promised the basics in just five hours on a Thursday. Behind the offer was an organization named the Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, or CJHS, which bills itself as the “New Holocaust Resistance” and warns that Islam represents “an existential threat to the West.” Here was a class with some individuality. I sent in my tuition and showed up on a mid-September Thursday at the Angeles Shooting Ranges just north of the city.

“So I’m really glad you’re all here,” began Matt Weintraub, our lead instructor. He was a lean and fit 60-year-old wearing an olive baseball cap that said MATT. “The world’s changing from the way it has been,” he continued. “It’s a little scarier, and a lot of the things we used to do don’t work anymore.” On his hips hung a walkie-talkie and a holstered pistol. “My dad’s ninety, and he says, ‘We just gotta get out there and protest a little more and vote for certain things the way we want it.’ I tell him that didn’t work in the 1930s, when Hitler came to power through a democratic process. Voting helps, but it’s not the answer. There is no one answer, but learning defensive firearms is part of the answer.”

We were 13 pupils—Aaron, Yisroel, Deanna, Marilyn, Marsha, Lea, Leon, Linda, Allan, Alicia, Evan, Joan, and me—of whom only Yisroel and I seemed to be under 60. But all clearly felt it was better late than never to heed the call of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the Revisionist Zionist who famously urged Jews to master firearms, and all expressed concern over Islamic radicalism and anti-Semitism. Deanna mentioned that she had a new granddaughter and would kill anyone who tried to harm her. Marsha said she wanted her children to know that “I’ll have a gun, so if need be, they’ll come to me, and I’ll protect them.”

My shooting partner was Joan, a 75-year-old who moved to Los Angeles in the 1960s and later became a lawyer at age 48. She asked me what I did, and I told her. “Oh, so you’re on the left,” she said. “We won’t hold it against you.” She wore white sneakers, pink pants, and a striped pink and white top that was embroidered with three small palm trees. During class introductions, Joan said she was there to conquer a fear of guns, not least because her husband, a survivor of Theresienstadt, believed that the world was more dangerous for Jews now than in the 1930s, with the Internet amplifying the hatred. “We’re living in worse times than anyone can imagine,” she explained. “It’s imperative that we defend ourselves.”

Illustration by Smithe

That said, world affairs mostly took a backseat to technical instruction, because we had a lot to cover. For the next two hours, we learned about the ABCs of handguns, including the difference between a semi-automatic and a revolver, between a single-action and double-action gun, and between a projectile and a round. We also learned when you can shoot a home intruder, and how much.

Our target was a blue torso on a poster, with the major internal organs outlined and labeled—heart, lungs, liver, kidney. At only 20 feet away or so, it felt more like execution-style killing than marksmanship, but I figured one starts with the basics.

Over lunch, as I tucked into a Starbucks turkey sandwich and some banana bread that Joan had baked (“Take a bigger piece,” she urged), Weintraub went over some additional forms of self-defense. We were advised to pack an “everyday carry kit,” which should contain, at the least, a pen, a knife, a flashlight, and a “throw-down” wallet with dead credit cards and $20. Or two of each, because “two is one, and one is none.” Dog-walking requires still more gear. Weintraub reached into his bag and produced a flashlight (“I carry two”), a boat horn, a C2 Taser (“works great on dogs”), a stun gun that he fired up and used to shock a folding chair, and pepper spray. Asked about bear spray, Weintraub averred, “I like it, but I don’t carry it.”

On the shooting range, we started with revolvers, and Joan and I were assigned to a large-frame .38 Smith & Wesson. Weintraub stood off to one side with a bullhorn, and two range instructors stood by to keep the shooters from doing anything overly dangerous. One team member was to coach the other during shooting, so I stepped up to load and shoot, and Joan offered pointers. (“Open the cylinder.” “Put your pressure on this leg.”) Our target was a blue torso on a poster, with the major internal organs outlined and labeled—heart, lungs, liver, kidney. At only 20 feet away or so, it seemed pretty close, and shooting it felt more like execution-style killing than marksmanship, but I figured one starts with the basics.

Weintraub instructed us from a megaphone to load one bullet into the chamber, to take aim, and to fire at the “bad guy.” I hit the heart.

“Whoa!” shouted Joan.

We loaded in another bullet. Another hit to the heart.

After ten rounds, I’d managed eight shots to the heart and two just outside, maybe near a lung or liver—I’m no doctor. But I cannot pretend I was displeased. “That’s a really good group,” said the range instructor. Joan gave me a congratulatory handshake.

Joan’s round, too, was successful, with nearly all of her shots hitting the target in the thorax. This was despite finding the gun to be a little too large for her hand, making the trigger hard to pull.

As we stepped away from the table to allow the next pairs of shooters to take their places, we ran into Doris Wise Montrose, founder of the Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. The group was launched in 2006, when Montrose was 57, in response to the abduction by Hamas of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. (It is not to be confused with the Philadelphia-based Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors Association, which works to “encourage tolerance” and hosts get-togethers such as “Fun Night.”) Montrose looked pleased to hear our reports of good marksmanship. “Last class, I aimed one time at the groin,” she said with a smile. “And I got it. I had a guy who was my partner. He said, ‘I can’t watch.’ ”

I snapped some iPhone photos of my classmates as they let the blue torsos have it. Marsha had good form, and so did Linda. Both looked like seasoned home defenders.

“This is such a liberating experience,” Joan told me. As a former liberal Democrat—“Anytime there was ‘save the whales,’ ‘save the snails,’ ‘save the trails,’ I was out there”—she was delighted to overcome her gun-related anxiety. Pulling the trigger, she later told me, was reminiscent of the first time she cast a vote for a Republican. But she admitted she probably wouldn’t buy a gun of her own, because her son and daughter-in-law would never bring over any grandchildren.

We tried out several more gun makes and models, since Weintraub wanted us to have a proper overview. Linda recommended one of the German pistols—“It’s nice,” she said—and I did find it to be smoother than some of the other semi-automatics. But I found the recoil to be too strong. No, I was a revolver man.

At the end of class, Weintraub told us to wash ourselves and our clothes thoroughly, since we were covered in explosive residue, and he added he hoped none of us was going to be flying. This was unwelcome, since I was headed immediately to LAX. (A change of shirt and washing of hands seemed to do the trick. No detentions.)

A few days after the class, I got a “Shana Tova!” e-mail from CJHS with wishes for “happiness, prosperity, and peace” in the new year; a picture of a bearded, kippah-wearing man holding a revolver under the words “Macht Frei,” rendered in the same font as the Auschwitz original; and an invitation to a CJHS event called “Armed Resistance To Genocide.” I also spoke to Doris Wise Montrose on the phone and asked if she really expected my classmates to be on the front lines of Jewish self-defense. Not necessarily, she said, but she owned a gun and wanted to know how to use it. “There’s no point in putting it in a closet like fine china,” she said. And I suppose that’s true.