Jimmy Yi, a 40-year-old Korean American digital product designer in San Francisco, was walking in the city’s theater district on Dec. 6 when he noticed an elderly Asian couple walking on the other side of the street. Most passersby wouldn’t have sensed something was amiss, but Yi, a student of Krav Maga, was trained to detect danger.
He observed the couple being followed by a man. As they approached their vehicle, fumbling with the car doors, visibly shaking, Yi intervened, stepping between the couple and the pursuant in a “semi-passive stance” — a defensive technique he learned in his four years practicing Krav Maga, the Israeli martial arts and fighting system.
“Just communicating nonverbally to the couple, like go, you can go,” Yi recalled in an interview with J. “It was fulfilling in the sense that the skills that I had learned… [allowed me to] be able to help someone with it.”
When Yi began attending classes at Tactica Krav Maga Institute, a martial arts studio in San Francisco run by Israeli trainer Danny Zelig, it was mostly men enrolled, with few Asians among them. In the last year, though, as indoor fitness centers have reopened, Yi and Zelig say there’s been a noticeable shift as more Asians sign up to learn Krav Maga.
Violent attacks against Asians and Asian Americans have risen sharply nationwide since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, and among Bay Area cities, San Francisco accounts for the majority of self-reported incidents of discrimination and violence against members of the Asian American and Pacific The Islander community, according to data released in February from Stop AAPI Hate, is a project from San Francisco State University.
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Pre-pandemic, Zelig noted, many people were enrolling in Krav Maga to lose weight or build strength, not necessarily to fend off an attacker. “The reason for fitness has dropped,” he said. ,[Now] people come in here mainly for self-defense needs because … you see that the landscape has changed a lot. And you feel it.”
More women are enrolling in his Krav Maga classes, too, accounting for roughly 40 percent of the students in Zelig’s three studios in Santa Clara, Oakland and San Francisco. Previously women accounted for no more than 25 percent.
Krav Maga has been used by the IDF since Israel became a state. Imi Lichtenfeld, a Hungarian-born Jewish boxer and wrestler credited as the founder of the system, trained combat soldiers in self-defense in the years just prior to Israel’s founding. Lichtenfeld then trained just 10 high-level disciples in Krav Maga. Zelig, who served as an infantry staff sergeant in the IDF, was certified by one of Lichtenfeld’s disciples and has been practicing and teaching since 1983.
The fundamentals, as Zelig describes them, are “mental muscle” — being aware of your surroundings and others — physical skills, such as response time and range of motion, and technique, such as kicking and striking an opponent.
“A punch or a kick, it’s the easy part … This is an accessory,” Zelig said. “Basically, Krav Maga is the art of making strategic decisions under stress.”
Yi said he was drawn to Krav Maga because it was more efficient, more situational and less cultural than other Asian martial arts practices. Additionally, he said the classes, averaging 17 students, brought him into a supportive and nurturing community of students, unlike experiences he had in other martial arts courses where he felt “bullied” by more advanced students.
The reason for fitness has dropped. Now people come in here mainly for self-defense needs.
During the pandemic, Yi says he grew “angry and furious” as more brazen attacks against Asian elders made headlines in the Bay Area, and he felt he couldn’t sit idly by. In March, he asked Zelig if KMI would help him fundraise for self-protection kits he could distribute to Asian seniors across San Francisco, equipping them with pepper spray, emergency whistles and bystander intervention cards in English and Chinese.
“And on top of that, develop a kind of a self-defense curriculum for these elders,” Yi said.
Within just two months, Yi and Zelig raised $6,000, enough to distribute 300 kits in neighborhoods with large Asian populations, including the Inner Richmond, the Sunset and Chinatown.
“That’s what I love to do,” Zelig said of being able to help people defend themselves and stay safe. “There is this old famous quote of Imi Lichtenfeld, the founder of the system, that said ‘so that one may walk in peace.’ So our goal is that we should be safe — obviously, because of our history as Jewish people, but it needs to be a universal thing.”
Yi sees the growing enrollment in Krav Maga in relation to the Jewish origins of the practice. The founder “[taught] Jewish citizens to protect themselves from fascist groups,” he said, referring to Lichtenfeld’s history of training Jewish street fighters against attacks in 1930s Czechoslovakia. “It really is about community. It’s that spirit that continues to live on, and what Danny continues to instill in us.”