By: Yitzhak Graff  | 

Trumpeldor’s Army: When YU Had a Rifle Team

The early 1970s was a period of uncertainty for the Jewish people. In Israel and around the world, Palestinian political violence directed against Israelis and Jews generally was on the rise. In America, Jews began to experience an increase in antisemitic attacks. The world economy entered a recession, and America pulled out of the Vietnam War. In this climate, many American Jews began to revisit philosophies of Jewish self-defense from generations prior. It was this era that saw the rise of the Jewish Defense League (JDL) which drew its roots from the ideas of Revisionist Zionism and applied them to life in the American diaspora.

The student body and the administration of YU were not interested in adopting an ideology as radical as the JDL’s, but the core idea of Jewish community defense remained appealing to some students. Taking inspiration from the Zionist hero Joseph Trumpeldor, an early organizer of Jewish militias in Ottoman Palestine, Yeshiva College students Jay Shoulson and Jack Schachnow created the Trumpeldor Rifle Club (TRC) in the Fall of 1974. The club quickly grew in popularity such that the Yeshiva College Student Council (YCSC) appropriated $210 ($1,160 in 2022 dollars) for the TRC in January 1975. The TRC used the money to purchase .22 caliber long rifles from the Civilian Marksmanship Program (CMP). (The CMP was an initiative of the US army dating back to the Spanish-American War that sold surplus weapons at a low rate to youth gun clubs to encourage good marksmanship among young Americans to prepare them for the possibility of war. The CMP was privatized by Congress in 1996.)

The TRC ran weekly outings to the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx for club members to practice shooting. The club charged a fee of $5 per trip to cover operational costs of transportation and using the shooting range. Commentator reporter David Gleicher, who accompanied the TRC on one of their weekly outings in March 1975, reported that almost thirty students attended that evening. Colonel Robert Marmorstein, YU’s head of security at the time, supervised the practice meet and provided training for the inexperienced attendees.

The TRC had goals beyond being a novelty experience for curious Yeshiva students. By the end of the Spring 1975 semester, they had become members of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and were eligible for intercollegiate competition. In the Fall of that year, the TRC organized an informal rifle team out of its most experienced members to compete in the NRA’s college rifle league. Lacking a budget to travel, the TRC’s rifle team competed remotely. The NRA organized remote competitions in which each team would shoot in their own respective ranges following the same standards of target distance and number of shots. Then each team mailed their used paper targets to the NRA’s main office in Washington DC to be judged. In October 1975, the rifle team had its first remote match against UCLA and lost.

Looking to improve the rifle team’s odds, some members proposed turning the Morgenstern Hall cellar into a shooting range. They felt that not having a local shooting range hampered their ability to practice effectively. A shooting range on campus would allow the team to practice more than once a week and improve the team’s skill. The idea never came to fruition, likely due to a lack of funding, but it is possible that the administration had a hand in preventing it for either practical or ideological reasons. After the Kingsbridge Armory closed in 1978, the team had to travel even farther to the US Reserve Armory in the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens.

By 1978, the TRC’s rifle team had become established enough to be eligible to become an official YU sports team. Having official team status would have opened the rifle team up to increased funding, a professional coach and the ability to earn credits for playing on the team.

The exact process for getting approval as a sports team back in the 1970s and ‘80s is a little unclear. At the very least, the potential team needed to prove that it had a responsible coach who could safely teach the sport and that the team would be able to satisfy the credit hour requirements. In 1978, Colonel Marmorstein had agreed to act as the rifle team’s coach, however, the team’s first attempt to gain official status was denied. The reason for this denial is unknown, but it was likely related to the team’s ability to satisfy the credit hour requirements, since they were only holding practice meets once a week. 

The issue was resolved in 1981 and the administration approved the team. The rifle team was included as one of Yeshiva College’s official varsity sports teams in academic catalogs from 1982-1989. In Fall 1982, YCSC appropriated another $150 to the newly recognized team, likely to purchase more rifles.

Colonel Marmorstein retired in the summer of 1982 and was no longer able to serve as the team’s coach. It’s unclear who coached the team from 1982-1989. After gaining official recognition, the rifle team had a hard time maintaining the momentum of excitement from its early years in the previous decade. The time commitment of the lengthy trip to the US Reserve Armory in Jamaica to practice twice a week was probably a significant factor in causing the decline of the rifle team and its associated club. The last members of the team graduated in 1990, and by 1991, the yearbook was already making fun of the fading rifle team with a satirical photo in the student clubs section.

The students who started the club were engaging with issues that are beginning to resurface in the Jewish community today. With antisemitism on the rise again, the idea of training with firearms for self-defense is gaining popularity in the Jewish community. Although the Trumpeldor Rifle Club didn’t make a significant impact on YU’s historical memory, it is interesting to reflect on the ways in which the youth of yesteryear responded to an atmosphere of danger that parallels the Jewish community’s experience today. 

The sources of this article were gleaned from contemporary editions of The Commentator, the Masmid yearbook and Yeshiva College course catalogs. I want to thank Deena Schwimmer for her assistance in locating the course catalogs for me.

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Photo Caption: The rifle team in Masmid 1985

Photo Credit: Masmid photographer