Jennifer Lopez in fighting mode for the film Enough is one of the thousands of Americans training with Krav Maga.Until now, ‘Shalom’ has been the most widely known Hebrew phrase in the US.

But moving up quickly is ‘Krav Maga’, the name of the self-defense martial arts which has taken the country by a storm and is the training regimen of choice of many of Hollywood’s top stars.

Krav Maga – literally means ‘contact combat’ in Hebrew. The technique is the official self defense system of the Israeli Defense Forces, and has been taught to hundreds of law enforcement agencies and thousands of civilians in the United States since being introduced there in 1982. According to its practitioners, Krav Maga is a simple, effective self defense system that emphasizes instinctive movements, practical techniques, and realistic training scenarios. And apparently it’s so effective, that it’s acquired some high-profile disciples.

When actress Kristanna Loken had to toughen up to play the role of Terminatrix in the new Arnold Schwarzenegger film Terminator 3, she went on a regimen of kickboxing and Krav Maga. “It’s this Israeli form of martial arts that they teach the military, a really perfected form of street fighting,” the 23-year-old actress told People magazine. “I tell you, there were some moments where I would have liked to fight certain people.”

Likewise Charlie’s Angel Lucy Liu espoused to Maxim magazine the benefits of Krav Maga while training for the latest Angel movies. “…I prefer hand-to-hand fighting. Like Krav Maga, the one used by the Israeli military.”

Entertainers from Jennifer Lopez (in the movie Enough, in which she played an abused woman who learned to defend herself), to Shannon Elizabeth (American Pie) and Angelina Jolie as (Lara Croft in Tomb Raider) also trained using the self-defense technique.

But it’s not just a Hollywood fad. The Washington D.C. Metropolitian Police Department Academy staff recently successfully completed a Krav Maga Force Training instructor certification course, and they are currently teaching KM to their academy recruits and veteran officers.

“It doesn’t hurt that Krav Maga has caught the fancy of Hollywood, it is after all based out of LA,” Rolando Haddad, a Krav Maga instructor based in Louisville, Kentucky, told ISRAEL21c. “Several movies have consulted with Krav Maga Worldwide and have sought the services of their trainers to help actors prepare for the physical part of certain action rolesThe fact that they mention Krav Maga as their preparation and training for fight sequences is a boost for us.”

What makes Krav Maga so appealing for Americans looking for a combination of self-defense and exercise?

“Krav Maga is heavy on the Martial, light on the Art. Krav Maga, due to the way in which it is taught, gives people a very intense workout. America is always looking for a new workout. With Krav Maga they get both a workout and self defense,” said Haddad.

With Krav Maga you don’t have to don robes or shed shoes, bow to an opponent or memorize long movements. It involves learning down-and-dirty street-fighting techniques and doing them so often that they become instinctive. The system relies on the human “fight or flight” reaction, and the idea is to act quickly and aggressively to get free of an attacker and then to disable him with a few quick blows to the groin or face, for example, to be able to get away.

“I think the popularity of Krav Maga among the American population is due to several factors,” said Haddad. “You will have certain small percentage of people like myself, who were drawn to Krav Maga based on the favorable reputation it has in the Mixed Martial Art community. I personally have a background in Kickboxing, Boxing and other “traditional martial arts” and I felt that Krav Maga combined the things I liked about these styles and made it more efficient. This, coupled with the fact that it is Israeli in origin. I have always admired the tenacity and warrior attitude of the Israeli Military. Thus, he concludes, many believe that if it is “the official system of the IDF. It must be good”.

To learn about how Krav Maga got started, one has to got back to the 1930s in Czechoslovakia. It was there that a young boxer, wrestler and gymnast named Imi Lichtenfeld was growing up contending with anti-Semitism and violence. It was his father Samuel, a policeman, who was an expert in various self-defense techniques that taught his son how to defend himself and provided the seeds for developing Krav Maga.

After escaping from the pre-war environment of Czechoslovakia, the younger Lichtenfield spent several years of travel, and arrived in pre-state Israel. He joined the Haganah, a paramilitary organization of the Jewish community and fought to create the independent state of Israel. During this time, he began teaching soldiers basic self-defense techniques.

The fledgling Israeli government asked Lichtenfield to develop an effective system of self-defense and fighting, which later became the Krav Maga system. The Haganah was eventually incorporated into the Israeli Defense Force, and Lichtenfield became the Chief Instructor for the military school for Physical Training and Krav Maga

In the 20 years, he served in the army, Lichtenfield developed and refined his unique system of self defense and hand-to-hand combat, training the instructors and the fighters of the Israeli Defense Force’s elite units. In 1978 Lichtenfield and several of his students created the Krav Maga Association, a non-profit public benefit organization aimed at promoting the teaching of Krav Maga in Israel and throughout the world. In 1981 the Krav Maga Association of Israel and the Israeli Ministry of Education held the first International Instructor’s Course at Wingate Institute for Physical Education.

New York philanthropist, S. Daniel Abraham, sponsored a delegation of 23 members from various cities in the United States to attend the course, which was supervised by Lichtenfield himself, who was then 71 years old and retired from his military career.

A young Darren Levine was selected to be part of the delegation because of his martial arts and boxing background in his hometown of Los Angeles, California. He ended being only one of a handful of students who passed the intensive 6-week course. Lichtenfield took Levine under his wing l.

“At the end of the course I remember Imi called us all into a room one at a time. When he called me in he told me I’d done well. Then he said, “Next year I’ll come to America and stay with you at your house.” I didn’t believe it. I figured he was calling everyone in and telling them all “Next year, I’ll come to your house.” But next summer there he was on my doorstep,” recalled Levine.

By 1982 Levine was teaching a course in Krav Maga in LA and the following year he formed the Krav Maga Association of America, Inc. The Association has successfully promoted good relations between the United States and Israel.

In 1987, Levine and his top students began teaching Krav Maga to law enforcement in the United States. Under Lichtenfield ‘s guidance, they adapted Krav Maga to suit the needs of U.S. law enforcement and military personnel. The first agency to adopt Krav Maga into its force training curriculum was the Illinois State Police in 1987.

Today, Levine operates the Krav Maga National Training Center, a 6,000 square foot facility in West Los Angeles. The Center, which opened in February of 1996, was the first of its kind in the world, blending Krav Maga with a fitness program and establishing a training ground for civilians, law enforcement, and military units. Levin launched Krav Maga Worldwide Enterprises in 1999.

Imi Lichtenfeld died in 1998 at the age of 88 But his legacy lives on. To date, Krav Maga has been taught to thousands of civilians, law enforcement, and military personnel in Israel, Europe, and the United States.

“The people I train are very aware of the fact Krav Maga is Israeli in origin,” said Haddad, who is of Cuban and Lebanese origins. “Frankly, it works as a good marketing tool for me, again, due to the nononsense reputation of the Israeli military. I do not think people politicize or think past this concept. It is positive in that Krav Maga trains people of all ethnicities, religious backgrounds, etc. Also, there has to be a certain amount of respect shown to the Instructors, and the System, at least in my center. This, I think does foster a certain amount of appreciation (and respect) towards Israel, even if it is indirect.”

Summing up its appeal, Haddad described the Krav Maga world as “a philosophy of being able to make decisions from a position of strength, not weakness. ‘So that we can all walk in peace.”