LA-Based ‘Shabbat Angels’ Volunteer Group Seeks to Protect Synagogue-Goers Amid Antisemitism Surge

December 12, 2021

As Jews around the world faced a surge of antitsemitism this past year, particularly during the flare-up of Israel-Gaza violence in May, the need to bolster security in Jewish communities became urgently apparent.

One group that has risen to this challenge is the “Shabbat Angels,” a Los Angeles-based volunteer network of jiu-jitsu and boxing trainers who have taken it upon themselves to escort Orthodox Jews on their way to synagogue on Friday nights and Saturday mornings (the name is based on the Talmudic teaching that two angels accompany every Jew walking to synagogue on Shabbat).

Coordinating this effort is Remi Franklin, by day the founder and CEO of Light Switch Digital and by night a jiu-jitsu and boxing practitioner. Franklin recently spoke with the Combat Antisemitism Movement about the “Shabbat Angels” initiative.

What got you into escorting synagogue-goers? Do you have a personal connection with the Jewish community in Los Angeles?

“I was raised in LA, Malibu specifically, and it had its own version of antisemitism, but I didn’t consider myself Jewish until I was older and connected with my roots. My business partner and his wife brought me back into Jewish life and welcomed me home to the Jewish world.

At a certain point, I got tired of just talking about combating antisemitism. Everyone can talk in their echo chambers, but that’s all that is unless you’re going to do something about it. I was generally vocal about antisemitism until the sushi incident happened and I realized that Orthodox Jews will not be safe, especially on Shabbat.

We try to bring in volunteers from military backgrounds or have been trained in martial arts. The most important thing is to de-escalate, not escalate if we are confronted by someone who wants to physically harm the religious Jews we are walking with. It also has a lot to do with physicality, someone is less likely to try something if they see a group of big guys in white shirts in the range of their would-be victims.”

How do you organize and recruit volunteers?

“The first group we had was all guys that I trained with in jiu-jitsu at Subconscious and Lobos [a boxing club]. After that, I had some friends interested in helping us out contact me to join. Then, someone made a post about it on Instagram and it was shared like crazy; everyone wanted to help out in some way after that. Of course, we couldn’t take everyone who was interested, we have to make sure that they’re both trained and confident. At the end of the day, an untrained person will want to fight and a trained person will know to confidently de-escalate the situation without having to get physical.”

Have you been in a situation where you had to defend yourself and the people you were escorting? Have you had to confront someone while ‘on the walk’?

One specific time comes to my mind:

Four volunteers (two former IDF soldiers and two former marines) were escorting an 80-year-old rabbi ,and two caravans made threatening moves on the road to try and run over a group of young Orthodox boys walking ahead of them. The volunteers deterred the situation and prevented anything from happening.

Otherwise, it’s most common that cars will roll down their windows as they pass by, obviously wanting to say something hateful or threatening, but then they notice us physically-fit volunteers in white t-shirts and they roll up their windows or just drive away, no harm done. Clearly, the risk outweighs the reward when you notice that a large group of well-trained guys will have something to say to you if you do say something threatening or hateful.”

Outside of walking groups of Orthodox Jews to and from synagogue, do you interact with the families and individuals? Do you know them personally?

“We definitely have contact with the families outside of escorting them to and from services. Many of them invite us over for Shabbat dinners regularly and other community events. Plus, they send us messages and call us to just check in with us and our lives outside of our volunteering work with them.”

If you could give a message to visibly-religious Jews in the US who are afraid of becoming targets of antisemitic hatred, what would it be? Do you have any advice for them?

“Train, train, train. Hashem needs a vessel to do his work, it doesn’t come out of nowhere. I highly recommend to any and all Orthodox Jews that feel defenseless on Shabbat and holidays to start training in jiu-jitsu and boxing. Quite frankly, I would also say to learn how to use a gun, even if you can’t carry it on religious holidays. Just for your own safety and peace of mind.

We can’t live in fear, it’s time to use your voice and time to protect yourself and the whole Jewish community. Few people are willing to actually take action and choose to stay fearful. Also, we really need to educate people about antisemitism and the effects it has on Jews around the world as well as societies at large. We can’t pretend that history has been kind to the Jewish people, and we need to not only speak up, but take action.”