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Krav Maga Camp: My Experience vs. Siena’s

Updated: May 19

A digital print of a girl on a sunset beach with the words "Siena" and "Erica"

If you read my behind the scenes post, you’ll know that I was so excited about Krav Maga camp in Israel, I somehow wrote most of Siena Saint James Is Not a Spy before the plane took off!

As such – and I mention this in the acknowledgements – Siena’s love of the trip mirrors my own, but her experience is far from a perfect reflection.

There Was No Pierre

The biggest and most important distinction is that nobody remotely resembled Pierre at the real camp. That scene (if you’ve read it, you know the one) was inspired by something similar in Mossad 101. However, I’m fairly certain that if Pierre had been real, his behavior would’ve been similarly (if less violently) condemned.

These days, it seems like there’s an elephant in the room whenever Israel comes up. When I told people about the trip, most were genuinely excited. But I have a pretty diverse group of friends, and some consider Israel an “apartheid state.”

I never know how to feel about this. On the one hand, apartheid is evil. Who would support an apartheid state? The problem is, that opinion simply doesn’t reflect the facts.

Everybody – Jewish, Muslim, Christian, you name it – has equal rights under Israeli law. Muslims make up nearly 20% of Israel’s population. Their votes are weighted the same, they hold seats in the Knesset (like their Congress), and they occupy appointed government positions.

Are there racists in Israel, as there are everywhere? Sure. But the discrimination isn’t systemic; it’s condemned. If Israelis attack innocent Palestinians, they are criminals. Period.

If Palestinians kill innocent Israelis – stabbing children in their beds, for instance – they are national heroes, celebrated with candy in the streets and (shockingly) government pay-outs. I kid you not. Each year, the Palestinian Authority spends approximately $300 million in rewards to convicted terrorists and their families. The more people you kill, the higher the reward. And if you die killing Israelis, your family receives a monthly stipend equivalent to several times the average salary.

(BTW Trump wasn’t a fan of this, so he basically subtracted $1 from the foreign aid budget for every dollar the Palestinian Authority spent on the “pay to slay” program. Otherwise the U.S. was basically funding these killings (ex: our foreign aid budget to the Palestinian territories was about $359 million in 2016, and the PA doled out $315 million in “pay to slay” rewards that year). Biden resumed those payments.))

So Why Include *That* Scene?

The “apartheid” notion is unique because it appeals to the goodness in people…they think they’re standing up to racism! So I couldn’t help but feel that once they got more information, they could have a more rational view of the situation.

Ron Engelman, our actual trip leader, made an interesting point after we visited the Holocaust Museum. He said antisemitism has existed for thousands of years, but the rationale behind it morphs to make Jews the enemies of whatever society values at the time.

So in ancient Rome, when the collective religion was polytheistic, the Jews and their one God were a joke. In medieval Europe, when the church was all-powerful, the Jews killed Jesus! By 20th century Europe, when science and eugenics had overtaken God as the primary authority, Jews were somehow “scientifically” less-than human. What are the cultural beliefs of today? Not a single religion, but the common values of tolerance, antiracism, inclusion, etc.

There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these values – on the contrary! But it’s interesting to see how noble ideals can be manipulated into creating a culture antithetical to their definition. It also shows how good people can be tricked into believing (and doing) bad things.

At some level, I think the “apartheid” crew sees all Israelis as a form of Pierre. By putting that stereotype out in the open, showing how the average person in Israel would actually see him, my hope was that they could take a more measured view going forward.


Now that you know what the camp wasn’t, the best way to share my actual experience is to re-post the recap I sent to Krav Maga Israel when I got home!

Day 1: Tel Aviv

After a lengthy set of flights from Dallas, I’m greeted at the Brown Seaside Hotel with a glass of champagne upon check-in.

Of course I thank the manager and ask his name. “Ike,” he says, pleased at being seen as more than a human check-in stand.

I salute him with my glass and walk to the elevator, where I’m approached by an Israeli in his mid-twenties. A friend lounges behind him on the blue couch. “You must be American,” the Israeli says.

“The English give it away?”

“That, and you’re so nice!” he gestures to Ike.

I shrug, he invites me to a party, and I decline, too polite to point out that after 24 hours of travel, I’m starting to smell myself. Not to mention the whole “not going places with strangers” thing.

I head up to my charming seaside suite, where a pithy box of chocolates awaits. “99% of people like chocolate. The other 1% are lying,” the box informs me. It’s not wrong.

I shower, and the newly-connected Wifi informs me that I have approximately 50 messages in our Krav Maga WhatsApp group. Everyone is hanging out at a restaurant/bar on the beach. I strap on my shoes and head to face my new companions/combatants.

Day 2: Tel Aviv

Two girls sparring on the beach in Tel Aviv, Israel
Image Credit: Krav Maga Israel

I wake up early, terrified of being late to my first proper day of training. It’s at a gym called Fight TLV, hidden beneath a set of stairs across the sidewalk from Gordon Beach. When I show up, around 15 people are already waiting outside. Some are brandishing muscles and tattoos; all are wearing head-to-toe black.

I look down. A tiny blonde Texan, I’m sporting a pink Lululemon t-shirt. *Face palm* There wasn’t a dress code or anything, but…could I stand out any more?

I approach the two men closest to me. Since I’m regrettably forced to wear tennis shoes for athletic endeavors, both tower 12-15 inches above me (I am a scant 5’0”). They don’t seem to mind, treating me like a regular human rather than a misplaced yoga retreat attendee.

Ron and Jarrod are calling us inside one by one to collect the rest of the camp tuition, pass out shirts, take attendance, etc. which leaves me ample time to mingle with the other attendees.

Everyone has a story, and I’m dying to learn more. There’s the posh Brit who just returned from Afghanistan, where he was doing something healthcare-related. He’s also been to Iran and North Korea. “Israeli customs loved me,” he jokes. There’s the head of a high-end fashion company. A professional musician.

A few people, like me, who just thought they’d lose their minds during COVID if they didn’t have something cool to look forward to. People have come from Europe, Australia, Asia…all to train with the best of the best in the home of Krav Maga.

We eventually get started, playing what is essentially two-man tag as a warm up. You try to tap your partner on the stomach, shoulders, or knees while blocking them from doing the same to you. It sounds easy, but it is freaking hard, and all the lateral movement tones your legs beautifully. We move on to punches in the gym. At one tip from Ron (throwing back your opposite shoulder), I notice my punch get stronger immediately!

The same goes for kicks. We get lunch somewhere in the middle of all this (there are countless nice cafes near the gym), and close out the day in the most perfect way possible: swim-wrestling in the Mediterranean Sea. What if someone is trying to drown you? Or you want to play water games and be the last man standing? Ron teaches us how to dunk your attacker by grabbing their leg, among other crucial skills. Though, to be honest, that part was also just a lot of fun.

Day 3: Ben Shemen Forest

We take a coach to Ben Shemen forest, just outside Tel Aviv. Most forests are dark and insect-infested, but perhaps because of its age, this one was light and airy. The site of ancient battles, tall, skinny trees soar stories high. Since they’re so tall, their leaves and branches are far overhead, providing shade but not getting in the way.

The ground isn’t muddy, but a nice dry, compacted dirt or clay or something (geology is not my strong suit). We practice strikes, then split into teams. Half of us go back to the bus for a lesson on self-defense on public transportation, but a lot of it could be applied to cars, too. Like, what if someone in the back seat puts a knife to your throat? That’s one of the things I love about this trip — there’s nothing wrong with gyms, but you can’t practice some of these real-world scenarios in one, you know?

After an hour of throwing each other all over the bus – wrestling between seats and trying to slam each other into walls – we go back outside for weapons training with Jarrod. The focus is on responding to attacks with a baseball bat, club, or similar object.

During one drill, when I was matched with an opponent so tall it was absurd to think I could get my armpit over his shoulder, Jarrod was like, “If you can’t go over it, go under it. Do whatever works.” Krav Maga is designed for everyone, after all.

The result? Proudest video of my life:

Day 4: Caesarea

Most. Beautiful. Day. Ever. Period. After visiting the grave of Imi Lichtenfeld, the founder of Krav Maga, we learned police and law enforcement techniques in a dusty barn, where living legend Master Rafi demonstrated how he can still take on “the biggest guys” one handed.

I kid you not, the guys were talking about it for days after, rubbing their throats and fingers and marveling at how they ended up on their backs at the hands of a man twice their age.

But to me, that wasn’t the best part. That came in the afternoon, when we went to the ancient Roman port city of Caesarea.

A classicist at heart, my spirits soared at the sight of those aqueducts. We went for a brisk jog on the beach, and our route went ON TOP of them!!! I detest running, but I had a ridiculous smile on my face the entire time. Running atop an ancient aqueduct, with the fresh wind of the Mediterranean cooling my brow, what could be more stunning???

After making sure it wouldn’t be disrespectful, I left training a little early to go swimming with some of the others.

IT WAS SO BEAUTIFUL AND FUN! I practiced water techniques against a German man twice my size, getting dunked at least four times before devising some modifications. I am modestly proud to say I dunked him twice before it was time to go.

Only 4 days in, we’re already an extremely close group. That happens when you spend your days wrestling and attempting to strangle each other. We’ve already started getting dinner and drinks together after training, usually only staying out until midnight or 1:00, though some of the more adventurous stay out considerably later.

One of my favorite spots is just down the beach from our gym, where white wooden tables and matching chairs rest in the sand, and they give you blankets to keep you cozy as the coolness of the night descends. Glass of wine in hand, candles dancing, you can talk and laugh for hours.

Tonight we went to a delicious vegan restaurant in Florentin, followed by an adorable bar. Upon meeting a Canadian girl, I ask what she’s doing in Israel. “I actually live in Paris,” she says. “And I work for Pinterest?” Her inflection implies I might not know the company. Now that’s modesty! And one of the reasons I love traveling. You just meet such interesting people.

At a mention of my aching feet, my British friend from day one gallantly offers to give me a piggy-back to my hotel (he knows I’m married — it was a genuinely kind gesture, with no ulterior motive). A few blocks in, a girl we met tonight is stunned to learn we only met a few days ago, since we’re already finishing each other’s sentences like best friends.

Day 5: Jerusalem

This is the day the trip became a lot more somber. We spent the morning at The Holocaust Museum, and Ron joined us on the tour, telling us of his family’s history.

He said something that really stuck with me about antisemitism: that it manifests in every era, and it adopts the social values of the time. So when religion was all-important, “the Jews killed Jesus.” In an era of rapidly-developing science, the Nazis used eugenics and other pseudo-scientific language to dehumanize Jews. And today, people accuse Israel of being an “apartheid state.”

There are two sides to every issue, but having just completed a lesson on apartheid as a teacher, it’s clear that Israel simply isn’t one. They keep a tight hand on Gaza and the West Bank, but if their policies were truly based on racism, Arabs and Muslims would be discriminated against in Israel, too. They’re not. They’ve had full rights under Israeli law since its founding. They can vote, hold political office, own businesses, pray whenever they want, and can actually go inside the Dome of the Rock, forbidding Jews entrance, even though it’s also on one of the holiest sites in Judaism.

Contrast that to Gaza, which Israel ceded to Palestinian governance in 2005 in exchange for peace. The Palestinians refused to accept it until every Jew, dead or alive, was gone. There were thousands of Jews who didn’t want to leave and were OK living under a Palestinian government, assuming they’d be treated like the Muslims in Tel Aviv, for instance, but Palestinian leadership refused to let a single Jew (dead or alive) remain. The Israelis literally sent in their army to evacuate thousands of Jews from their homes. They had to dig up graveyards and relocate the bodies of dead Jews. Of course, they also had to bulldoze the synagogues.

I mean…if Israel is an apartheid state, what is Gaza? Digging up Jewish graves? That’s like, OCD-level antisemitism. Israel isn’t perfect, but I don’t really understand why, in this A-B scenario, A is being called an apartheid state when B is insanely racist.

Day 6: Tel Aviv

Yesterday was pretty exhausting, emotionally and physically (we had lunch in the Jerusalem shuk and did more training near the iconic city walls), so today was a bit more laid back…as far as Krav Maga camp goes.

After a lovely morning of pretending to kidnap each other in the park, we went back to Fight TLV for a lesson on tactical first aid and mass casualty management.

“If there’s a knife involved, you’re going to get cut,” every Krav Maga teacher will tell you. OK, but what do you do when the fight is over? How do you deal with the injuries?

We learn all about tourniquets, Israeli bandages, and more, finishing the lesson with a drill where half were patients and half medics (before switching). To me, it felt like a Civil War movie. “Medic! Medic!” someone cried. “I need pressure on this wound!”

Knowing we have the gauntlet tomorrow, all but the most energetic (foolhardy?) stay in tonight. I can’t believe it’s almost over!

Day 7: The Gauntlet

Nooooooooo! I don’t want it to end!!!

I mean, I want this interminable run to end. I hate jogging, and I hate sprinting on the shifting sands of a beach even more. But I don’t want the trip to end!


I’d woken up at 4:00 a.m. with two-fold dread, both for the harrowing morning ahead and the fact that I’d be leaving Israel that night.

An hour or so later, I found myself running for my life down Tel Aviv’s coastline, the rising sun rapidly dispelling the chill of the night. Then came a series of military-style drills from Ron, though we obviously weren’t carrying enormous backpacks and rifles. I don’t know how actual soldiers do it.

Just moving my body, without added weight, was enough. “Sprint to the water! Waist height! Bear crawl back!” “Lay on your back! Link arms! Sit ups!” Waves crash on top of us. “Plank position! Down! Up! Down! Up!” Waves crashing some more. “Bear crawl back!”

By the end, we were so covered in compacted sand, we looked like schnitzels. And that was the easy part.

Our final challenge was a sprint up Wingate Hill – which honestly is practically vertical and made of sand – while being attacked by various assailants about every five feet.

Oh, and Jarrod personalizes your torture right before. Some people had to do burpees. I had to roll over and over down the beach until I was dizzy as fuck, then he yelled, “GO!” and off I went to fight.

It was one of the more humbling experiences of my life. I could barely walk up that thing, let alone sprint and defend myself from attackers! Climbing it again later that day, I cut myself some slack. It was one of those treks where you’re stumbling and grabbing rocks with your hands even when nobody’s yelling and trying to fake-stab you.

BUT EVENTUALLY WE FINISHED! Time for a picnic and drinks on the beach with new lifelong friends.

I’ll spare you the nightmare of figuring out the required COVID tests on Shabbat and skip right to the farewell dinner at Ernesto’s.

Most places were closed, so we took over a section of an Italian restaurant, ordering obscene amounts of pasta and limoncello.

And just like that, after a week of being attacked with guns, knives, and sticks, making friends with some of the coolest people in the world, and training with some of the most qualified Krav Maga instructors on earth, it was time to go back to normal life.

So…when can I sign up for next year?


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Thank you!


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