Friday may or may not mark a major milestone for humanity — the end of the world, which some are expecting for December 21, the last date of the 5,125.36-year Mayan Long Count calendar. New age legend has it that when the calendar “runs out,” the world’s allotted time will, too. In order to survive the worst, people around the world have been stocking up on supplies and “bugging out” (preparing for a quick exit to a safe redoubt), just in case.

Josh Wander, who heads a group called “Jewish Preppers,” does not believe, as some do, that the earth will be “attacked” by an object called Nibiru, which will cause a global cataclysm on December 21 (Nibiru, or Planet X, is currently hiding behind the sun and will apparently be unleashed as the Mayan calendar ends). “But you don’t need a doomsday scenario to prepare for an emergency,” Wander told The Times of Israel in a telephone interview from his hometown of Pittsburgh. “There are plenty of people in New Jersey and Long Island who now wish they had been prepared to deal with an emergency like Hurricane Sandy.”

Josh Wander (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Josh Wander (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Whether the world is less safe today than it was in the past, or it just seems that way because of the all-pervasiveness of the electronic media and the Internet news cycle, prepping — loosely defined as stocking up on food and water, and finding a safe place to ride out whatever emergency comes along — has become a major movement in the US, with an estimated four million-plus families stocking up on an at least three months’ worth of supplies, “just in case.”

The movement has become so topical, in fact that there is a reality TV show called “Doomsday Preppers” (on the National Geographic channel) that portrays how people are getting prepared, providing tips and ideas for others in the movement. Wander himself was the subject of an episode of the program, but he’s really not preparing for “doomsday,” Mayan or otherwise. “Obviously they use the term ‘doomsday’ to generate ratings, but I and most of the preppers I know do not believe in an apocalyptic end-of-days scenario.”

In the program, Wander said that he was preparing for the consequences of a major terror attack on the US, one that would disrupt delivery of food and electricity, upend law enforcement, and cause political instability. “But that’s just one possibility,” Wander said. “The show’s producers require a rationale for prepping, so I used terrorism. But the truth is I, and most others I know, are preparing for a wide range of possible scenarios, whether natural or manmade.”

One scenario where prepping makes perfect sense is the “perfect storm” scenario — like Hurricane Sandy, which caused major devastation on many parts of the East Coast. “FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] recommends that families stock three days’ worth of food and water, which is the amount of time they estimate it would take authorities to get things under control in the event of a major emergency. But in many areas struck by Sandy it took authorities a lot longer to get to many of the victims.”

Storm victims who properly prepped, with generators and diesel oil, freeze-dried food and uncontaminated water, were able to get on their feet far more quickly than those who relied on the government for assistance.

“Many of the victims saw that their prepped neighbors fared far better than they did, and as a result, our website has been getting a lot of inquiries from people in New Jersey and other areas for advice on how to get started,” Wander said.

His Jewish Preppers website provides ideas and tips on how to do just that, with information on how and where to store water, what foods to stock up on, and links to products that make survival easier (like supplies of freeze-dried kosher foods that fulfill USDA nutritional guidelines for vitamins and minerals).

At the very least, prepper guidelines say, you need a “bug out bag” — a ready-to-go supply of basic supplies (food, water, medicines, etc.) — and a place to get out of the way of turmoil. That could be a mountain redoubt, a cabin in the woods, or even a well-hidden shelter in the basement where a family could take refuge until things calm down.

Many of the companies that cater to the prepper community sell products with a shelf life of as long as 25 years, which, at first glance, feeds into the stereotype of preppers hunkering down in the hills while a nuclear, financial, or other apocalypse destroys society. But there’s a much simpler explanation, said Wander. “Most of the companies that produce these meals are located in Utah, because their main customer base consists of Mormons, who are required by their religious leaders to have at least a one-year supply of food.” While various reasons are given for this stricture, church leaders point out that they are not preparing for a specific apocalyptic event — but that it’s just a good idea to be ready.

And Mormon-style planning also provides some lessons for city dwellers, who, Wander believes, should be prepping as well. “Mormons are also required to serve as missionaries for several years, and many of them take their food supplies with them, fitting them into small apartments in Eastern Europe and shacks in Africa,” said Wander. “You don’t have to live in a big farmhouse in the middle of nowhere to prep.”

Not all preppers stock up on those supplies, which can get pricey. But prepping doesn’t necessarily mean buying hundreds of MREs (meals ready to eat). “Anyone can prep by just stocking up when they go to the supermarket,” said Wander. “Instead of buying the two cans of vegetables you need, buy a third one and add it in your stockpile.” Pretty soon, you’ll have a respectable stockpile that could come in handy when disaster strikes.

And there’s one more thing you need when prepping — a way to defend your stockpile. “Again, all preppers are different, and there are many that are anti-gun,” said Wander. “As far as I can see, however, you need to be able to defend your family when an emergency strikes, because it’s likely that someone else who is hungry will try to take away what you have.”

Wander lived in Israel for several years and served in the IDF, so he is no stranger to firearms. In fact, he trains others in Pittsburgh in how to handle and use guns. He’s a proud member of and certified instructor for the National Rifle Association (NRA), and sees guns as a key aspect of prepper prepping. “Not all preppers train in firearm use, but frankly I think they are crazy,” said Wander. “The Second Amendment to the Constitution says that we can own firearms, so there is no reason not to take advantage of that in ensuring that your family is safe.”

Guns are an important part of survival strategy – a belief Wander maintains even in the wake of last week’s massacre in Connecticut. The killing of 27 people – 20 of them elementary-age schoolkids – has ramped up the debate on the need for additional controls on firearms, but Wander doesn’t expect it to go anywhere. “The media and politicians are just showing their ignorance when they propose banning certain kinds of ‘dangerous’ guns,” he said. “Many studies show that hunting rifles can be more dangerous than even weapons like AK-47s, which people perceive as being truly ‘dangerous.’ The reason, of course, is because people see those guns in the shoot-them-up movies.”

Any weapon used in the wrong way can be lethal, Wander noted, and any weapon used in the right way can save lives. “It makes sense for all law-abiding citizens to own guns. They are going to have to change the Constitution to stop ownership of guns, and that is not going to happen,” he added.

With that, Wander maintains, he does not expect a complete breakdown of society, “although some preppers do. But we have to face facts — law enforcement doesn’t always do the job of enforcing the law we hope they will.”

That there are neighborhoods that police dare not enter is not news, said Wander, and it’s likely that scenarios will develop which police will not dare deal with. “My hat is off to police, and to defense forces as well,” said Wander. “But it’s no secret that police had a very hard time dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and many law-abiding citizens suffered.

“More and more people in the law enforcement community are themselves becoming preppers,” Wander said. “They are realizing that we are with them, not against them, and are enhancing their role.”

Prepping makes sense not only for Americans but for Israelis too, at least within legal strictures, he said. (While IDF soldiers often carry their weapons in civilian settings, getting a personal firearms license in Israel is generally difficult, unless the applicant can show an immediate need.) “I served extensively in the IDF as a commander, and as all IDF soldiers know, whether or not they are religious, most of our victories are divine miracles.”

The Israeli army, Wander said, is a fine fighting force, but suffers from plenty of inefficiencies and glitches.

“I greatly respect the IDF and its soldiers, but there are plenty of ‘doomsday scenarios’ I can see happening where the IDF and Israel in general would just be overwhelmed.” Israelis, he said, need to be prepared for disaster as much as Americans. With that, Wander said, he is considering moving back to Israel, “because I feel much safer there as a Jew than I do in the US.”

And Jews in general should be the most prepared group of all, Wander said. “One of my goals in Jewish Preppers is to educate the Jewish community on the need to prep, and I have plenty of object lessons from Jewish history.”

Going back to the Bible, in fact — when Noah, Jacob, and Moses all had to “bug out” to escape a world or personal emergency — Jews have throughout the ages been the one people who, faced with the onslaught of Crusaders, pogromists, Nazis, and other assorted baddies, have needed to make a quick getaway and find creative ways to survive cataclysms.

“Prepping has always been an integral part of our culture, but it’s been lost,” said Wander. “I’m working to bring it back.”