Asher Smiley (right), owner of Krav Maga Revolution in Petaluma. (Photo/Courtesy Asher Smiley)
Asher Smiley (right), owner of Krav Maga Revolution in Petaluma. (Photo/Courtesy Asher Smiley)

Krav Maga gyms practice a new kind of self-defense during pandemic

While JCCs across the Bay Area can breathe a small sigh of relief as counties loosen restrictions on indoor fitness facilities, Krav Maga studios are still in a defensive position.

The Israeli self-defense system, which has been used by the Israel Defense Forces since the state was founded and has long been a popular form of martial art around the world, requires students to be in constant physical contact with each other, whether it’s learning how to fend off an attacker with a knife or blocking a punch. That makes it tricky to hold a Krav Maga class during the pandemic.

How to get around it?

“The short answer?” said Asher Smiley, owner of Krav Maga Revolution in Petaluma, one of about a dozen studios in the Bay Area. “Not easy.”

Smiley, who grew up in Oakland and attended Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco, has owned his studio since 2017. While regular gyms can space out equipment and augment classes for socially distanced workouts, that’s not the case for contact activities like Krav Maga and similar martial arts.

Smiley closed his studio in March along with other gyms across the state. He reopened at limited capacity starting Sept. 28, per rules set by Sonoma County. Before Covid, his gym was running 60 to 90 minute classes throughout the day, six days a week. Now, there are just three classes per week. The “close-knit community” of 25 members has been whittled down to a committed group of five, with the majority still hesitant to return, Smiley said.

Before a class starts, Smiley said students have their temperatures taken and then sanitize their arms and neck, points of frequent contact. They are paired up and don’t change partners throughout the session. Smiley said he also makes sure that family members always stick together. There’s a lot more solo time on the heavy bag as opposed to “mitt work” (where partners face each other). Masks are required for partner work; Smiley said if someone prefers not to wear one, that person has to practice alone.

Smiley is working a second job as a security guard at a Santa Rosa-based marijuana dispensary to pay the bills. He said financially his studio is “doing OK” and he doesn’t anticipate having to shutter it for good. He is concerned, however, about how long it will take before everyone feels ready to return.

“I’m not going to get class numbers back up for the foreseeable future,” he said. “It’ll be a slow burn, for sure.”

Krav Maga is different from other martial arts in that it takes elements from boxing, aikido and judo, combining them into a system centered around self-defense. It was developed by Hungarian martial artist Imi Lichtenfeld as a way to defend against rising fascism in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s. A decade later, he brought the technique to the IDF after Israel was founded.

Krav Maga’s reputation as an efficient, combination self-defense system attracts people who want to get a good workout, or feel the need to protect themselves after a bad experience, such as physical or sexual assault, practitioners say.

Amit Himelstein, the head instructor and program developer for the International Kapap Federation, an Israeli-based training organization that teaches Krav Maga to militaries and civilians around the world, said that continuing to teach during the quarantine is a “huge problem.”

Amit Himelstein training Israeli paratroopers in Krav Maga knife-disarming techniques. (Photo/Courtesy Amit Himelstein)
Amit Himelstein training Israeli paratroopers in Krav Maga knife-disarming techniques. (Photo/Courtesy Amit Himelstein)

The IKF has members located in the United States, including Smiley, who is their California representative.

Himelstein said his organization has created a Krav Maga online training platform in response to the pandemic. But he admits there are limitations to the medium.

“You can’t get deep into the material,” said Himelstein. “I can drill you [on] some shots. I can’t build your ability for you to understand being in a dangerous situation.”

Other than in-person classes that Himelstein is conducting for the IDF, everything else is being done remotely, including a course he’s teaching to members of the Chilean government.

Himelstein believes longtime Krav Maga members will stay committed, but he is less confident about attracting newcomers, who may not want to learn online.

“No one will start their journey into Krav Maga with an online platform,” he said. “Business-wise, everyone has to think outside of the box to keep the community involved.”

Another Bay Area studio, Krav Maga Xtreme in Albany, is set to reopen on Nov. 3 with a strict set of guidelines.

Owner Gaby Gliksman said his studio has 150 members. When it opens, he said, there will be no contact except among family members. All students will be masked and will practice on a heavy bag in their own designated area.

Gaby Gliksman, owner of Krav Maga Xtreme in Albany. (Photo/Courtesy Gaby Gliksman)
Gaby Gliksman, owner of Krav Maga Xtreme in Albany. (Photo/Courtesy Gaby Gliksman)

Born in Israel, Gliksman came to the United States in 1994. He’s been practicing martial arts since he was 7 years old and opened the Albany studio in 2018. After the pandemic hit and he closed his gym, Gliksman tried to run outdoor classes, but he discontinued them because he felt they “diluted” the Krav Maga experience he provides at the studio.

Gliksman said about half of his members are expressing interest in returning, including a father who recently reached out asking for one-on-one classes for his son, who has been depressed.

“We’re trying to see how to bring him in,” he said, “so they don’t get too depressed.” The pandemic “takes a crazy toll” on children especially, Gliksman has found.

The rest of the studio’s members either have health concerns or don’t see a Krav Maga class without partner contact as worth the effort, Gliksman said.

“I don’t know if people will be lining up [out] the door” when the studio reopens, Gliksman said. “It’s very tough.”

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler is a staff writer at J. You can reach him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ggreschler.