Israeli self-defense finds fans in San Francisco

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It’s 10 a.m. on a sunny Saturday morning in San Francisco, but inside the dark DNA Lounge in SoMa it’s serious business. More than 50 students of Krav Maga are punching and grunting their way through the beginning of a two-day session on how to disarm would-be shooters or thwart potential abductors.

“Put it under their chin!” goads their teacher, Darren Levine, a six-degree black belt responsible for popularizing this Israeli self-defense system in the United States.

Levine weaves through the crowd of mostly black-clad students, their eyes locked on their partners as they prepare to throw another knockout punch into a padded board. “There’s no other way to hit than hard,” he says.

Darren Levine

Pariticipants give it all they’ve got, grimacing and snarling as sweat drips from their brows. They land punch after punch, then an elbow, a knee — whatever it takes to get control of the situation.

“Don’t be yourselves now,” Levine continues, urging students to stoke the inner fire that transforms them into quick-witted combatants any attacker would regret confronting.

“People really want to defend themselves, to go out at night and feel safe,” Levine says. “It’s the same in every big city.”

Krav Maga is a method of self-defense that involves a heightened awareness of potentially threatening situations and the courage to act accordingly.

The official self-defense method of the Israel Defense Forces, Krav Maga relies on instinctive movements and techniques that can be used in dangerous situations. Levine travels the world giving seminars and trainings to military personnel, police units and civilians.

Participant Gina Beretta, a 17-year resident of San Francisco, began practicing Krav Maga eight years ago after a frightening experience with a stalker. Now the 40-year-old mother of two young children says she has become her own best weapon.

“A lot of women are scared of [Krav Maga], but I believe everyone, every woman, should learn it,” she said.

Students learn Krav Maga at the DNA Lounge in San Francisco. photo/jonathan costello

Krav Maga has taught her how to assess situations and diffuse one if it turns bad, she says. She is confident she can defend herself and her family, which has given her a sense of inner calm. “I had a lot more aggression before, and I know it has kept me more peaceful,” she said.

Beretta trains at Krav Maga San Fran­cisco, a studio owned and operated by Gail and Barny Foland. After being trained by Levine — founder of the Krav Maga Association of America and Krav Maga Worldwide — Barny Foland brought Krav Maga to San Francisco in 1999 and has seen its popularity soar.

“It’s instinctive,” he said. “This is about how to defend against realistic attacks, not just how to fight.”

His studio has evolved into a complete fitness center that also offers CrossFit, yoga and TRX training to more than 600 members from its Bush Street location.

Foland said he brought in Levine to lead the workshop so locals would have a chance to train with a master and learn important life-saving techniques. The early May seminar focused on gun defense and culminated with “situation training,” during which students applied the moves and techniques they learned to disarm assailants.

“Darren is one of the top-ranked instructors in the world,” Foland said. “He’s such a great teacher, and that’s why I thought it was important to bring him.”

Levine firmly stands behind Krav Maga as a mode of self-defense, and knows there’s a need for its teachings. As a prosecutor with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office, he is on the legal end of many violent crimes, some of which, he says, might have been prevented had the victim used self-defense tactics like Krav Maga.

“I want as many people with this skill set out there as possible,” Levine said.

He trained under Krav Maga founder Imi Lichtenfeld, an Israeli who modified the methods to apply to civilians and police forces. Through Levine’s decades of teaching Krav Maga in the U.S., he has trained some of the most specialized forces in the world, including Navy SEALs.

Mill Valley resident Trevor Stevenson, 37, drew upon the practical wisdom gained from Krav Maga during a 10-year stint in the Amazon working with indigenous people, helping them to live sustainably and protect themselves.

Krav Maga is “built for the modern day,” he said. “It makes you more able to see and do things in the world and not be so afraid.”

Shoshana Hebshi
Shoshana Hebshi

Shoshana Hebshi is a freelance writer and former J. copy editor living in the North Bay.