Krav Maga has recently earned its way into the lives and fitness plans of women and men globally.
However, the martial art is not a flavor-of-the-month trend: Developed in pre-World War II Slovakia in the wake of anti-Semitic activity and later refined in Israel, the practice has empowered its students to face the dangers of the world for years.
Many people have learned about Krav Maga following news about its use by the Israeli military. Then, of course, there is pop culture and Hollywood, where many Americans discovered the self-defense specialty through segments on the Discovery Channel; the Jennifer Lopez female-empowerment thriller Enough; and a particularly hilarious episode of The Simpsons, where Bart and Lisa encounter it during a family trip to Israel.
Don Melnick, co-founder of the Cherry Hill and Hamilton, N.J., studios called Israeli Krav Maga, however, considers the martial art serious business for both responsible instructors and their students -- who, based on his own experience, range in age from 7 to 76.
The schools, which Melnick co-founded with Israeli-trained instructors David Kahn, Abel Kahn and Rinado Rossi, offer direct application to real-life crisis situations. Rather than go against an opponent in a ring, students learn how to come out swinging against the unexpected -- and then escape to safety.
The Jersey sites are affiliated with the Israeli Krav Maga Association (Gidon System), headquartered in Israel. They are not the only schools that teach the martial art by a long shot, but, according to Melnick, are the only ones in the area solely devoted to the martial art rather than featuring it as part of a package.
"Challengers" include simulations of sexual assaults, purse snatching, playground bullying, gangfights, bar brawls, car-jacking, campus attacks and home invasions. The big reward from "winning" is making it home safely.
"Although Hollywood has been good to us in terms of marketing and promotion," says Melnick, they are constantly trying to dispel misconceptions that "come from overkill of Krav Maga depicted on some television shows."
"In every single class, we stress it is for self- defense and should never be used to initiate an attack."
Beyond the groin kicks, throat strikes and eye gouges for which Krav Maga is perhaps best known, Melnick says some of the most powerful skills students sharpen involve situational awareness, and altering the way they carry themselves.
Unlike other martial arts that focus on strength-against- strength, Krav Maga emphasizes allowing its practitioner to overcome an attacker who is physically larger but can be caught off guard.
"Bad guys do not want challenges, or somebody who will fight back," says Melnick.
"We also remind students," he continues, "that he or she who throws the first punch is the person who gets in trouble."
Though many of the studio's students -- from all over the Philadelphia area -- are non-Jews, Melnick says that one attraction for Jewish students is the shared sense of identity that comes from Krav Maga.
He and his peers travel to Israel regularly to train with current grand master Haim Gidon, protégé of Krav Maga founder Imi Litchtenfeld.
Suzanne Dougherty, a woman's shoe designer, found Krav Maga training to be such an empowering experience that she has since gone on to earn her credentials to teach it.
She has come a long way, starting out as a mugging victim who wanted her healing process to go deeper than vindication. She now is one of the first women to receive teacher credentials through Melnick's studio.
"The fact that Krav Maga is less about sport fighting and more about self-defense is what drove me to it," recalls Dougherty. "There is constant movement, as you are throwing punches and toning your upper body."
Meanwhile, Alexis Convissar, a mom with two children, explains that "I am interested in martial arts for the purpose of self-defense, not for the awards or ceremonies that other disciplines are big on."
She was drawn to a versatile workout that also could provide her with self-defense skills and Jewish cultural connections. "The fact that it has its roots in battling anti-Semitism and was part of the history of Israel and the Israeli army appealed to me."