Susanne Reyto carefully loaded her rifle and switched the safety off. Peering into the scope attached to the top of the weapon, she pulled the trigger while former U.S. Army platoon leader Charlie Jasper looked on to ensure she was handling her weapon safely.
To their right, 29-year-old Sean Constine loaded bullets into his rifle’s magazine. Then he picked up the rifle and, having located his target — a steel plate attached to the top of a pole approximately 50 yards away — fired away.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Stern, a former member of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), corrected the shooting stance of a 20-something who’d never fired a weapon before.
They were among 25 individuals who visited the gun range at the Oak Tree Gun Club in Santa Clarita on Dec. 2 to fire rifles and handguns. Organizers of the daylong event said its purpose was to show that learning how to fire a gun can be a powerful experience that Jews, in particular, can benefit from.
“We wanted an event that was empowering, and we wanted an event that also discussed the moral imperative of Jewish self-defense,” said Orit Arfa, who organized the event. “Learning how to use a gun is, hopefully, not something that every Jew will have to take upon themselves, but we think learning how to use a weapon and not being afraid of using a weapon will influence people toward a certain courage.”
Arfa called the event timely, too, casting it as a way to celebrate Chanukah, which begins at sundown on Dec. 8 and commemorates a “Jewish victory achieved by Jewish warriors who took it upon themselves to rise up in arms.”
Zionists of Los Angeles, a Los Angeles-based ad hoc group created by Arfa, put on the event after the original sponsor, the Zionist Organization of America’s (ZOA) Western Region, opted out before the event took place, according to Arfa. (A former executive director of the ZOA-Western Region, Arfa was fired from the position last month.)
Jessica Felber, chair of ZOA-West’s young professionals group, helped plan the event, and most of the participants included adults in their 20s and 30s who regularly attend its programs. But others turned up as well, including Reyto and her husband, Robert, who is in his 70s.
Hired instructors included Jasper, whose service in the Army included a 2008 stint in Iraq, and Stern, a professional shooting trainer who fought in the IDF during the Second Intifada as part of an infantry unit and as a sharpshooter.
Other instructors also had connections to the IDF. Shimi Baras, a shaliach (emissary) for Bnei Akiva of Los Angeles, a Zionist youth group, was a former member of the IDF, and several participants claimed that Avichai Perez serves on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal security team. (When asked if this was true, he said it was classified, but showed identification indicating that he works in the Defense Department in the office of the prime minister.)
The instructors weren’t the only ones with prior shooting experience. Some of the participants drew on a range of firearm knowledge.
Constine came in with so much experience firing guns, in fact, that he became a de facto instructor, showing other participants how to hold their weapons properly. A graduate of Emory University, Constine made aliyah in 2005 with the help of Garin Tzabar, a program that facilitates serving in the IDF for Diaspora Jews. He then served in the army.
“The idea of a strong Jew very much appeals to me,” said Constine, who saw combat in Lebanon and in the West Bank while serving in an infantry unit. He currently lives in Los Angeles.
Robert Reyto may have been the oldest person in the pack, but that certainly didn’t put him at a disadvantage. Born in Hungary, he suffered through Nazi Germany and communist Hungary. During the ’60s, Reyto served in the U.S. Navy, working as a dentist in a naval construction battalion unit.
But, for some, it was their first time handling a weapon. That included Paula Perlman, 26, a graduate of California State University, Northridge; Tamar Union, 27, college campus coordinator at the Jewish outreach group Aish Los Angeles; and Susanne Reyto.
The latter struggled to see through her weapon’s scope, everything appearing as a blur. Still, she said, she was grateful for the opportunity to learn how to protect herself. Like her husband, Susanne, 68, who was born in Budapest one week before the Nazis invaded Hungary, lived through the Holocaust, during which she hid in a cellar with her mother.
Gunshots filled the air as the group walked past the outdoor gun club’s shotgun skeet-shooting range and approached the rifle range. As they waited in a line to rent weapons and ammunition, the gunshots startled those who had never been to a shooting range before.
Before meeting at the gun range — where they took turns firing M4 semiautomatic rifles for nearly an hour, then moved on to handguns — the group gathered at a sports-memorabilia clubhouse owned by Marvin Markowitz, who also owns Factor’s Famous Deli. There, Stern, a member of the National Rifle Association, led a training session on gun safety and spoke in strong support of gun ownership.
Not everyone agreed. Constine said he is in favor of gun control.
“Israel and America are vastly different places. In Israel, you need to carry a gun. Here, you don’t,” he said.
Stern also spoke about what he called the problem of American Jews viewing themselves as victims of persecution. Learning how to operate a gun is a way to change that mindset, he said.
The people who participated in the event won’t be turning into Moshe Dayan overnight, he said, referring to Israel’s famous military leader. But, he concluded, this was a step in the right direction.