As three pistol-holding Jewish women aligned their muzzles with the outdoor targets at the Magen Am gun range in Piru, California, one of the shooters-in-training – Dani, a granddaughter to Holocaust survivors on both sides of her family – fired a single shot.
“Whoa,” Dani said as her earmuffed head tilted slightly back after the bullet pierced the cardboard, as if amazed at the power of the weapon she gripped.
“Good, finger off the trigger, go ahead and put it down,” said the firearms instructor teaching the women how to defend themselves amid the recent spike in antisemitic incidents as the Israel-Hamas war unfolds in the Middle East.
With threats against American Jews on the rise, many have begun seeking firearms training and purchasing weapons out of fear for the safety of their communities and families, according to interviews CNN has conducted with gun range operators, firearms instructors and Jews in the US in recent days.
The Anti-Defamation League said it recorded 312 antisemitic incidents across the United States over the first three weeks after the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas broke out, including instances of harassment and assault.
A person making death threats to Jewish people near a kosher restaurant; a Jewish-owned business vandalized with anti-Israel phrases; and a driver swerving toward Jewish children while shouting, “Allahu akbar” are among the recent hate-related encounters, according to the league.
Several of those occurred throughout Southern California, where Dani lives.
“Now more than ever with the rise in antisemitism, I feel we have a responsibility as Jews to speak up and speak out, and also know how to protect ourselves because the reality is people don’t seem to want us around, and it’s hard,” Dani, who declined to share her last name for her safety, told CNN.
Some gun range operators and firearms instructors throughout the country have noted more Jewish people looking for ways to protect themselves with guns – either for the first time or to inquire about obtaining additional weapons, experts say.
Gene Petrino, a retired SWAT commander in Coral Springs, Florida, told CNN he’s gotten roughly 15 to 20 Jewish people per week seeking training since the war broke out.
“They want to know about situational awareness and how they can learn to spot a threat before an attack occurs,” said Petrino, who co-owns Survival Response LLC, a company offering workplace violence prevention, active shooter and firearms training.
He says the Jewish people he’s worked with are prioritizing not only buying a gun, but learning how to use them safely.
A rise in American Jewish gun ownership would come as a noticeable shift for a group that is historically liberal and a majority of which are registered Democrats.
“I’m definitely finding that to be the case with the Jewish community right now, they will take lessons and understand the safety, how they function and what they can and can’t do,” Petrino said.
“They’re making sure they have what’s practical, what’s needed based on their own set of circumstances,” he said. “They’re very pragmatic in (how) they’re going about this.”
The desire for gun training and ownership differs from the usual views on firearms in the Jewish community, according to Mark K., a Jewish photographer in Houston who owns two guns and requested CNN not reveal his full last name for safety.
“I’m actually surprised to hear that other Jewish people have guns,” Mark told CNN.
“In terms of the Jewish community overall, I know most people do not own guns just because most Jews are liberal and want gun control,” he said.
A 2018 American Jewish Committee poll showed 70% of Jewish respondents thought it was more important to control gun ownership than to protect Americans’ rights to own guns.
The US government does not keep official statistics on gun ownership, including demographic information. Research from industry groups like the National Shooting Sports Foundation break down gun ownership by race and gender but not by religious affiliation. The Pew Research Center’s demographics include age, gender, party affiliation, urban/rural residency and education but not religion.
Gun ownership brings ‘sense of comfort’ for some Jews
A poll conducted last week by the Jewish Federations of North America found Jews were roughly twice as likely as non-Jewish people to say they’ve been worried about their safety in the past month, according to data shared with CNN.
Mark K. says he’s among those concerned. He had not regularly carried his concealed weapon since his business was robbed in 2015, which is why he initially began carrying. Heightened antisemitism over the past month has changed that, he said.
“I wish I didn’t have to have the weapon on me. That makes me nervous as it is, just having a weapon on me. I don’t like to keep it on me. I’m certainly more aware of my surroundings because of the weapon that’s on me.”
While he’s relieved by the added security measures at his local Jewish Community Center, he’s still worried when he goes out for lunch with his elderly mother, Mark shared.
He doesn’t think anyone can tell he or his mother are Jewish by looking at them, but noted his mom wears a Star of David.
In his metro area community of approximately 51,000 Jews, he says he “was never nervous about being Jewish in Houston,” where he’s lived since the late 1970s.
“And now I am,” he said.
Daniel, a resident of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who only wanted his first name used, said he was waiting for the firearm he purchased last week to arrive at the shooting range he’d recently visited.
“As soon as it’s delivered, I’ll pick it up,” said Daniel, who’s lived in the South Florida city for the past eight or so years.
The spike in violence and hateful rhetoric has evoked fears within the Jewish community of another Holocaust, according to Daniel.
In the decades prior to Nazi Germany’s systematic extermination of Jews, Germany had and its religious freedom laws served as a safe haven for its massive Jewish population – in much the same way American Jews have considered the United States for over a century. The rise in antisemitic attacks have worried many American Jews that history may be repeating itself.
Hamas’ October 7 attack against Israel represented the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust.
“I think a lot of people were hoping that we were past that – I know I definitely was – but I think current events have shown us that may be coming, and that there is that type of hate in the world,” he said. “It’s very scary.”
He’d never before felt the need to be armed, but says he’s changed his sentiments in light of recent events.
Daniel’s relatives, who live in Los Angeles, said they heard about a burglary in the city that concerned them.
“I think the level of hate has really kind of heightened it to a sense of, ‘I need to make sure I can protect my family,’” Daniel said.
“What’s triggered them is there was a break-in recently into somebody’s home, and the guy was spewing all this hate speech, and like, ‘No, never again,’ was in their minds immediately,” he said, referring to the Jewish community’s refusal ever to be genocide victims again.
Daniel’s relatives in Los Angeles recently experienced a break-in in their neighborhood, he said.
The “ultimate sense of comfort” Daniel says he’ll feel with owning a gun brings with it the unease of handling a lethal weapon. Knowing how to use it responsibly, he shared, is something he doesn’t take lightly.
“There’s a sense of responsibility that comes with that,” he said. “I would definitely, 100%, intend to continue to do weapons training courses and go to the shooting range on a regular basis so I can use it effectively, and not harm anybody I don’t intend to harm.”
Firearms classes at ‘four or five times the size’
In Rockland County, New York, the founder of the New York State Jewish Gun Club told CNN he’s trying hard to keep up with the increase in demand for training.
“I’m getting extra help, to help answer the phone, to reply to the emails and to make sure that everyone is serviced,” said Tzvi Waldman, who started the club in 2017 to unify Jewish gun owners.
Their club normally offers a firearms class needed for obtaining a pistol permit about once or twice monthly for around 12 people, Waldman said.
“Since what happened in Israel, we have done three classes at probably four or five times the size,” he said.
Waldman explained Jewish views on gun ownership vary on a spectrum, with Orthodox Hasidic Jews more conservative and leaning toward social issues and family values, and other Jewish people who share more left-leaning political views.
“There is a notion out there that Jews are anti guns, but in reality, at least in my community, I think the Second Amendment is very strong over here,” Waldman said. “What happened in Israel was like a rude awakening for people that no matter where you are on the spectrum in Judaism, you’re hated the same.”
He’s been shocked, he shared, at the type of people joining his classes recently – people who were previously unaccepting of guns as a means of safety who now see the value in it, he said.
The recent visitors explaining why they want to learn to shoot have voiced their safety concerns with fear and worry over handling a deadly weapon, according to Waldman.
“It’s coming from a level of anxiety. … They want to make sure that they know how to use it and that they know which one to get,” Waldman said.
“A lot of people are scared of it, but it’s either that or death, and they would rather learn something that they were uncomfortable with and to know that they’re safe,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the location of a burglary referenced by Daniel, who lives in Fort Lauderdale. It was in the greater Los Angeles area.
CNN’s David Culver contributed to this report.