Orna had a happy childhood in Montreal in a religious family of five children. Ice hockey and basketball were her favorite hobbies. “I always enjoyed sport and fitness,” she says. Her mother was a supervisor and teacher of Jewish studies, while her father worked as cantor and assistant rabbi at the large synagogue nearby.
When Orna spent her gap year in Israel at Bar Ilan University, her married sister Hagit loomed large as a nurturing figure. Hagit, who was 10 years her senior, lived in Yakir near Ariel.
After studying economics and international relations at McGill University, Montreal, Orna came here and roomed with other girls in Givat Shmuel. During the lengthy Second Intifada, she tried her hand at various jobs – import-export, translating and English teaching. She also attended a fashion school in Tel-Aviv for two years and studied designing, sewing and pattern-making.
When Orna got engaged and married, her sister’s unstinting support continued. “Hagit helped plan my wedding 15 years ago, and helped me give birth to three of my children. She was a strong foundation for me and my family,” Orna explains. The Alexanders set up home in Modi’in, where her husband works in the hi-tech sector as a chief architect at BlueVine, an online banking start-up.
Nine years ago, however, after Hagit’s third child reached bat mitzvah-age, tragedy struck the family. Hagit fell ill in Yakir, was diagnosed with metastasized breast cancer and passed away two weeks later. Orna was so distraught at the loss of her sister that she had difficulty coping with her grief.
“After her passing, a great surge of pain and anger resided in me. Even after naming my youngest son Hagai after her, my sadness impaired my ability to function as a mom,” she relates.
The turning point for Orna came when she enrolled in a civilian Krav Maga class to acquire self-defense and combat skills. Krav Maga, which is still widely employed in IDF basic training, efficiently combines various martial arts, boxing and wrestling techniques and teaches quick reactions in fraught situations involving close combat.
Hungarian Holocaust survivor Imi Sde-Or (Imrich Lichtenfeld) – an award-winning fighter trained by his father – developed the system for survival purposes in street combat against fascist groups in the 1930s. Sde-Or experienced Nazi occupation in Bratislava (Slovakia), fled in 1940, then got to Palestine by a risky traumatic route. After joining pre-state Haganah, he was asked to train soldiers in the late 1940s. From 1948 he was IDF chief instructor of physical fitness and Krav Maga for 20 years. Krav Maga, which includes offensive components, aims to safeguard users and neutralize antagonists. Protective pillows are used for training.
Orna was galvanized by her new skills. “It was such a therapeutic medium to get my anger out in a productive way, and as a result I was a happier mom to my kids. I really enjoyed the power of it, the concentration, physical fitness and competitiveness. There is no holding back.”
THOUGH SHE made really good female friends in the class, she noticed that some women “were extremely intimidated” and dropped out.
“I really wanted to become an instructor to reach the female sector and work with women and girls,” Orna explains. As part of her training involved instructing others, she proceeded further. After four years of being an official instructor, she reports, “There are an amazing number of women who really enjoy it.”
“Since then, my passion for Krav Maga grew, and I continued for certifications. Presently, I am an instructor, teaching females of all ages how to channel their anger and use self-defense skills to become stronger, resilient and confident,” she explains.
Due to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, Orna no longer goes to the gym, but works out via zoom, runs, bikes and uses her punching bag. A new development is teaching boys age eight and upward on Zoom. Because bullying is often a problem for this age group, self-defense is important.
Recently, Orna started her own Krav Maga school called KravGirls, to empower females through self-defense. When Orna’s daughter was 11, she had to deal with a girl who was removing belongings from her schoolbag. “I taught her first to warn the girl that if she doesn’t listen, she would take physical action. When verbal warning didn’t help, I taught her a chopping technique on the wrist – enough pain to stop the girl, but not excessive force to really hurt her. My daughter never had a problem with the bully again.”
Another 15-year-old female student needed to deal with a bully who was consistently hitting her after school. “She felt guilty for not knowing what to do and letting the girl hit her to the ground. After months of training, I saw a noticeable difference in how she carried herself, and more importantly, her increase in self-esteem and assurance. I taught her verbal and non- verbal cues to demonstrate clear boundary setting. We also drilled when and how to use physical defense, and to feel comfortable using force when the non-aggressive approach didn’t help. Next time when attacked, my student stood her ground and verbally set a clear boundary. When the bully resorted to physical violence, she defended herself successfully.”
“I hope my story can inspire others,” Orna says. “Even when faced with a trauma, you are able to reveal a part of yourself you did not know existed. The sadness and anger can be used for good to explore a different side of your strengths.”