Deacon Ara Lafi of the Woodcliff Community Church heard of the attacks and figured it was time to do something.
"I read about those horrific attacks in the newspapers," Lafi said. "Those attacks took place right here in our community, some within blocks of our church. I knew that we had two police officers in our congregation, and I wondered if they could do anything to help the women of our community."
Lafi then approached Det. Tony Gomez of the Union City police department and Police Officer Ramon de Jesus of the North Bergen police to see if they would be willing to teach self-defense classes to the women of the community.
"They were more than willing to help," Lafi said. "They wanted to do it. They thought it was a good idea and were happy to do it."
Lafi then approached Woodcliff Pastor Greg Dunlap to see if he thought the self-defense classes were a good idea.
"He applauded it and told us to go for it," Lafi said. "The funny thing was that [Dunlap] read the articles and he said he was concerned about it as well. This is the church's way of offering something to the community. Of course, the church's goal is to win people over to Christ, but we also have to reach out to the community more."
The first classes were held last Monday night at the church. Despite the warm temperatures, more than a dozen women showed up to learn a little bit about taking care of themselves.
Dozen showed up Carol Gebhardt is a North Bergen resident who had her awareness lifted with the recent assaults.
"I was beginning to feel safer on New York streets than Bergenline Avenue," Gebhardt said. "Of course, I was concerned. This is our neighborhood. Nothing like this ever happened before. We have to be aware."
Mary Saltalamacchia agreed.
"Tell me about it," Saltalamacchia said. "Of course, I was concerned. This area is changing. It's not what it used to be. There is reason to be alarmed. When I heard about these classes, I thought it was a great idea. It couldn't hurt. I wanted to bring more people with me."
Gomez was the instructor for the first class. He went through a litany of basic techniques for the women to use if they are approached by a stranger.
Gomez made sure that he was not teaching the women to become vigilantes or to learn any martial arts techniques.
"But women have to know that they do have rights and they should be able to defend themselves," Gomez said.
"They can escape from what's happening with a few easy steps. We want them to know that they're not helpless, that they can do something. They have to have self-esteem enough to realize they can do it, that they can fight someone off and keep themselves safe."
Guidelines Gomez handed out a pamphlet with some simple guidelines to help women learn about self-defense.
· Use common sense.
· Do not walk alone.
· Carry a cellular phone.
· Pay attention to your surroundings.
· Have house/car keys accessible.
· Be fully aware that you can survive the attack.
There are also simple tips as items of personal self-defense in terms of escape, like ear strikes, eye gouges, stomp and drop (stomping on the assailant's foot, then dropping) and joint manipulation. These steps really intrigued the group.
"The hands-on techniques really helped," Saltalamacchia said. "I never knew anything about going for the ears. I just hope I can remember them all."
"People think that stuff like this doesn't happen in our neighborhood," said Chrissy Perez, a deacon at the church. "We have to be prepared. I think a lot of us have been very concerned since the other incidents. This gives us the upper hands in not making yourself a victim. He gave us some good tips."
"I thought it was very informative," Gebhardt said. "It's important for women of every age, from the senior citizens to the young. I think we learned things that we can put to use."
More classes Gomez is not done. The classes will run every Monday night through August 15, beginning at 7 p.m.
"The group was very attentive and they were willing to learn," Gomez said. "We never did anything like this before. These are all just tips we learn in general police training and we're able to pass them along."
Lafi was pleased with the turnout for the first class.
"I was very encouraged by the amount of women who took the time," Lafi said. "This was a good turnout and we want it to keep growing. It's not too late to join. It's not just about self-defense. It's about awareness and awareness of the surroundings."
The free self-defense classes for women will continue at Woodcliff Community Church, located at 7605 Palisade Ave. in North Bergen every Monday night at 7 p.m. through Aug. 15. For further information, call the church at (201) 869-4555 or (201) 868-6601.