Henya Chein has always been terrified of guns. The Orthodox Jewish artist and mother of two felt uneasy about her husband’s decision to buy a handgun after they moved to Florida from New York last year.
“I would just block it out of my mind that it’s in the house,” Chein, 26, said.
But after watching the events unfold in Israel, she’s taken steps she never imagined herself ever taking. Chein attended a gun safety seminar at her synagogue last week followed by a one-on-one session at a local shooting range.
“Even at the range, I just wanted to drop the gun and run back home,” Chein said. “I was so scared, and I’m terrified of it.”
But she said she felt “forced to do it because Jewish people are not safe anywhere now.”
The deadly terrorist attack in Israel and the torrent of social media threats that followed have forced many American Jews to reconsider their long held stances against owning or using guns.
Firearm instructors and Jewish security groups across the country say they have been flooded with new clientele since Hamas assaulted Israel on Oct. 7. And gun shop owners in Florida say they have seen more Jews purchase firearms in recent weeks than ever before.
“We’ve definitely seen a tremendous increase in religious Jewish people, Orthodox people, purchasing firearms,” said David Kowalsky, who owns Florida Gun Store in the town of Hollywood, and also offers firearms training classes. “I’ve seen a surge in interest in individual training as well as group training.”
Kowalsky, who is Jewish, said local synagogues had reached out to him to host gun training seminars and shooting sessions in the past week. At one gun safety seminar he hosted this past week, Kowalsky said most participants were new to guns.
“These are mothers, teachers, the majority of them are mostly people who have never interacted with firearms or thought about owning them,” Kowalsky said. “There’s a safety concern. I think people are nervous about what’s going on and what can happen.”
Rabbi Yossi Eilfort runs Magen Am, a nonprofit in Los Angeles that provides self-defense classes and firearm training to the Jewish community. He said they’ve received more than 600 calls in the last week.
“We can’t put down the phone without picking up the next one,” said Eilfort said. “The calls for self-defense training, situational awareness training — ‘How do I make my shop or my institution a harder target?’ — has just been really, really nonstop.”
It is not uncommon for targeted groups to seek out self-defense measures after public attacks or threats.
Some American Jews said they had first become interested in gun ownership after a 2018 shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue killed 11 people. A 2022 study from the University of Michigan found that Asian Americans who experienced racism during the pandemic were more likely to acquire firearms and ammunition for self-defense.
But in many Jewish communities, gun ownership is a taboo subject.
“The majority of Jews in the country historically have been liberal on the left, pro-gun reform, pro-gun control, opposed to personal gun ownership,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran New York-based political strategist who is also an Orthodox rabbi. “Jews with guns were always seen as an odd event.”
But now, Sheinkopf added, it seems the long held view — of the U.S. being the “one place in the world where Jews are safe — is coming to an end.”
Pro-Hamas extremists and neo-Nazis have inundated social media platforms with calls for attacks on Jewish communities and other targets in the U.S. and Europe, prompting U.S. law enforcement agencies to step up their readiness postures, NBC News reported last week. And there have been a smattering of hate crime incidents against Jews in the U.S., including an assault recently of a woman while she was standing on a busy New York City subway platform.
Muslim Americans have also been targeted in recent weeks. In the most high-profile case, a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy was stabbed to death in his Illinois home in what police described as an anti-Muslim hate crime; his landlord has been charged with murder in the attack.
NBC News spoke with more than a dozen Jewish Americans across the country who sought out gun ownership or formal gun training for the first time in response to the Israel-Gaza conflict. Many said they did not feel comfortable publicly sharing their identities out of fear they might be targeted. At least two people said they had received antisemitic death threats on social media.
Some also said they feared backlash from people in their communities who may be less receptive to gun ownership.
Endi Tennenhaus, a preschool director and mother of seven living in Hollywood, Florida, helped organize a gun safety training for women at her synagogue this past week. Her husband, who is the synagogue’s rabbi, had already organized a men’s group to go to a shooting range.
“I said, ‘What about the women? I’m sure some of the women would love to do that as well,’” recalled Tennenhaus, 41. “If all of our husbands are buying guns, we want to make sure we also know how to use them and also to be able to protect our children and be able to keep guns safe in our homes.”
She said 25 to 30 women attended the introductory class, and a shooting range session is scheduled for next week.
A 41-year-old Jewish woman living in Miami Beach said she is pro-gun control and had no desire to use a firearm. But she signed up for gun training sessions after receiving death threats from unknown accounts on Instagram, where she had previously posted about being Jewish.
The woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear for her family’s safety, said the threats contained graphic images of dead bodies.
“It’s not like ‘Hey, I’m proud and happy and want to do this,’” she said of her choice to take firearms training. “I have no choice. It’s a very sad thing.”
Daniel Lombard, a Chicago police officer who also runs DAVAD Civilian Defense, a firearms training company, said he has seen a massive uptick in interest from local Jewish communities.
“We are definitely going to be adding classes. There’s no doubt about it,” Lombard said.
Eilon Even-Esh, a Marine veteran living in Florida, has hosted a series of emergency safety and gun training sessions for the Jewish community in his county over the past week. He said the calls have been nonstop and the majority of participants are first-time gun users.
“Some are concerned, and some are angry,” said Even-Esh.
On Monday, he hosted a hastily arranged, late night personal safety training at a local synagogue, which lasted from 10:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m.
“These are regular people that want to feel safe,” he said.