In the wake of the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks in Israel, two Jewish students at the University of Pittsburgh are stepping up to fight back against antisemitism — literally.
As the war between Hamas and Israel continues, and anti-Israel rhetoric on campus rises, Ian Branstetter and Hannah Margolis, both members of Pitt’s Mixed Martial Arts Club, are leading beginner self-defense classes for Jewish students. They have held one session so far, with participants coming from both Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University, and will offer additional classes as interest rises.
“I remember first hearing the news and being pretty distraught,” said Branstetter, a senior at Pitt studying business information systems and marketing. “I knew this would affect the student community here.”
Margolis had a similar reaction.
“Like most other Jews, I was concerned and afraid of what was happening. I didn’t know how many people were hurt, what this meant for the future of Israel or where Israel could go from here,” Margolis, a junior who is also studying business information systems, noted.
Margolis heard these fears echoed by her peers, some of whom said they were feeling unsafe on campus since the start of the war. Margolis, a vocal advocate for the mental and physical benefits of martial arts, suggested a self-defense class and received overwhelming support for the idea.
She enlisted Branstetter, president of Pitt’s MMA Club, to teach the class, as he previously taught basic self-defense to sorority groups at Pitt and children at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania.
“He’s such a great teacher,” Margolis said. “I’ve learned so much from him, and I knew that he would be supportive of these other beginners.”
Branstetter started wrestling at the age of 6 and began studying a larger scope of martial arts, like kickboxing and jiujitsu, in high school. Margolis got her start a bit later, playing a variety of sports in high school but not seeking out martial arts until college.
Despite her delayed introduction to MMA, Margolis’ interest in self-defense started early.
“My shul would have an intro to Krav Maga class each year when I was in elementary school, and my dad would always take me,” she recounted. “It helped me understand how to be aware of my surroundings and made me realize that I’m not helpless and I can protect myself.”
Aside from this sense of self-empowerment, Margolis finds multiple mental health benefits in the exercise.
“I’m a very anxious person, and it helps me alleviate some of that,” she said. “Being both Jewish and a woman, it can often be scary walking by myself, especially at night when it’s dark. Once I started doing MMA, I didn’t feel as defenseless.”
Branstetter and Margolis hosted their first self-defense class on Sunday, Oct. 22. Participants learned the proper forms and stances for throwing punches and kicks, but the main focus of the class was de-escalation and the role body language plays in avoiding a physical confrontation.
“Body language is a secondary type of communication, and it says so much about whether you’re willing to fight or not,” Margolis explained. “De-escalation should always be the first strategy. There are so many unknowns in a fight, and it’s best to not engage if possible.”
While neither Branstetter nor Margolis have experienced antisemitism directed specifically at them on campus, they agree that social media can make campus feel unsafe.
“Some posts I see from other students I follow have been more lenient towards Hamas’ actions than I would’ve hoped,” Branstetter said.
Margolis agreed, noting that social media often stirs up fear because it emboldens people to take sides and publicly share their opinions, potentially leading to threatening posts.
“There’s definitely a sense of paranoia generated by social media,” Margolis said. “There have also been some articles published by the Pitt News where some of the rhetoric bordered on antisemitic.”
She hopes the self-defense classes will give students a renewed sense of security.
“I hope that people leave the class understanding that these situations are not likely to happen but feeling empowered to handle them if they do,” she said.
Branstetter said he was not expecting the students to have to use anything they learned during the class.
“I mostly want them to have a feeling of safety and confidence in themselves,” he said. “Hopefully, it can help them get their minds off of what’s happening in Israel, get some exercise and boost their confidence a bit.” PJC
Dionna Dash is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia.