Joshua Wander has been a committed “prepper” — that is, a disaster preparedness enthusiast — his whole adult life. A volunteer EMT, Wander was first inspired to take prepping seriously as he found himself on the scene of numerous terrorist attacks in Israel in the early 2000s, just as the rest of the world was experiencing a similar rise in terror.
At first, “most people thought of us as conspiratorial, tin-foil hat wearing alarmists,” Wander said. But since the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic — a crisis most people were neither expecting nor prepared for — that may be changing.
As governments across the globe announced national lockdowns in early March, anxious shoppers rushed to grocery stores, leading to shortages exacerbated by a fractured global supply chain. That, coupled with the civil unrest that has gripped the United States since George Floyd’s May 25 death while being arrested by police, has upended notions of societal stability once taken for granted.
What’s more, said Wander, the US government and law enforcement responses to both the pandemic and the George Floyd protests have eroded people’s trust in the powers that be, leading more Americans to crave self-sufficiency should another adverse event strike.
Wander, who was born in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, and raised in neighboring Pittsburgh, was featured on the National Geographic reality TV series “Doomsday Preppers” in 2014. The show profiled some of the more extreme preppers, including people who built underground bunkers, underwent weapons training, and harvested algae as a food source.
For Wander’s segment, the television crew followed along on his quest to find long-term storable food that was kosher certified — a requirement for Wander, who is an Orthodox Jew. What’s more, it had to be enough to feed eight mouths. (He is a father of six). Between that and conducting bug-out drills with his children, Wander had his work cut out for him — a challenge that made great fodder for reality television.
Given Wander’s previous television exposure, he agreed to speak with The Times of Israel from Jerusalem, his home for the last six years, about what it takes to “prep” as an Orthodox Jew. (Other Jewish preppers were less enthusiastic about talking to the press, preferring to remain underground.)
At the time of his interview, Wander had just come off a debate on an online prepper forum discussing how Bitcoin would be affected if the electrical grid goes down in the event that an EMP strike wipes out all electricity and crypto-currency is rendered worthless.
‘People will look for the Jews’
When the COVID-19 pandemic first reached Israel’s borders in March, Wander wasn’t overly concerned that he’d have to use any of his emergency supplies. Still, he dug through his stockpiles for N95 protective masks and took inventory of all his long-term storage food and gear. He also recharged all his batteries “just in case.”
Even as Israel and the US begin to emerge from the worst of the pandemic, there is still the possibility of a second wave of infections, and it remains to be seen what the ensuing economic devastation may bring. This is a concern for many preppers — including Wander — who believe an economic meltdown could lead to rioting and social breakdown, a prescient concern as social unrest envelops the US.
Around $75.5 billion was spent worldwide on emergency preparedness in 2017, according to Allied Market Research. That spending is projected to increase to $423 billion by 2025 as extreme weather events around the globe become more common.
But while Americans are increasingly adopting a prepper mentality, the majority are still woefully unprepared. This is evidenced by the severe toilet paper shortages and empty grocery shelves that became a symbol of Americans’ panic as lockdowns were first implemented.
A 2012 study by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) found that almost half of Americans don’t believe that a natural disaster will hit their community. A later study in 2015 in disaster prone areas reported that less than half had developed an emergency preparedness plan or discussed it with their families, leading the US government organization to launch a massive information campaign.
That, coupled with the increasing number of natural disasters such as Houston’s Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, which both struck in 2017, spurred more mainstream Americans to create a preparedness plan suitable to their geographic region and specific family needs.
You’d have to be a prophet to know exactly what specific thing is going to happen
Wander criticizes the reality TV program “Doomsday Preppers” for promoting stereotypes of the “crazy prepper” and for making participants choose one particular doomsday scenario they were bracing for.
“I don’t know any prepper like that personally, and I know quite a few preppers,” Wander said. “You’d have to be a prophet to know exactly what specific thing is going to happen.”
“When you prepare, you prepare broadly for different types of disasters,” he said. “Obviously if you’re living in a place like Israel you’re not going to prepare for a hurricane, because there’s not going to be any hurricanes here. If you’re living in a place like California it makes sense to prepare for an earthquake but not for a tornado. You fit it to where you live.”
Wander volunteers with Israel’s EMS services as well as ZAKA, a group of volunteer-based services self-described as specializing in identification, extraction, and rescue. He also participated in an Israeli emergency relief delegation sent to Texas after Hurricane Harvey.
Wander’s biggest concern and main motivation for prepping is the global rise in anti-Semitism — particularly in the US.
“It’s unfortunate, but I think Jews are the least prepared of the nations right now,” Wander said. “I think corona is the least of the problems right now. A greater problem will be the following economic collapse, when the DOW and everyone’s 401Ks collapse. I can assure you that there will be riots in the street and people will look at the Jews.”
Alarmism aside, scapegoating Jews is not a particularly new phenomenon. In April, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio singled out Hasidic mourners in Williamsburg for violating social distancing, and during the George Floyd protests, Jewish-owned shops were looted and anti-Semitic graffiti was emblazoned on synagogues as Black Lives Matter protestors swept downtown Los Angeles.
“You have a secretary of the treasury that is Jewish and you have Jews in the White House, and I cannot imagine that there is going to be anything but a terrible, terrible backlash in the United States against the Jews,” Wander said.
A staunch Zionist, Wander has made it his mission to encourage Diaspora Jews to move to Israel through his organization Bring Them Home. Following the pandemic and recent events in the US, his organization has ramped up their messaging and launched an aggressive ad campaign targeting ultra-Orthodox Jews who are not ideologically Zionist. He says recent events are a sign for Jews around the world to pack their bags.
I cannot imagine that there is going to be anything but a terrible, terrible backlash in the United States against the Jews
“For me it’s like being in 1938 Europe and knowing there’s going to be a Holocaust and just not being able to do anything,” Wander said.
Matzah, the ultimate prepper food
Emergency preparedness looks different for everyone, but at a bare minimum FEMA recommends Americans have three days’ worth of supplies at home, as well as a bug-out kit with enough food, potable water, and essential supplies to allow one to live off the grid for 72 hours.
To most serious preppers, though, cities become “urban death traps” in disaster situations, so plans include having a bug-out location out of the city as well as enough food and supplies to be self-sufficient for years.
Most also have weapons training due to fear of a breakdown in law enforcement or the implementation of martial law — a reality not entirely difficult to imagine as the National Guard is deployed and curfews enforced in many cities across the US. (Wander is a proud NRA-certified arms instructor and gun rights advocate. He says a gun-free zone is “an invitation to attack.”)
While there’s a slew of resources out there for the average prepper, those who keep kosher face a shortage of advice. This led Wander to create the now-defunct JewishPreppers.com, an online resource with tips for the observant Jewish prepper on how to find shelf-stable food.
As it happens, the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS) was of prime assistance. It requires all Mormons to have a year’s worth of supplies at home in case of emergencies.
This is not in anticipation of a doomsday event, a church official told The Times of Israel, but rather part of the Mormon belief in “provident living,” or being self-reliant. LDS churches and Mormon individuals operate large-scale canneries and home storage centers around the United States for church members to stock up on prepper food and gear.
“I ended up visiting a lot of these centers and checking products where the food was made to see whether it was certified kosher, and then publishing that info on the Jewish preppers blog,” Wander said. “You can also purchase from them and can on-premises.”
Most cannery owners welcomed Wander despite the fact that he is not an LDS member, helping him track the food manufacturers to determine the kosher status of specific food items.
“Some tried to missionize me, but I didn’t mind,” Wander said. “One asked me to bless the food, which I was happy to do.”
On the National Geographic show, Wander displays his massive stash of matzah, which he calls “the ultimate prepper food.” His assessment might not be far off, considering the amount of time many of the boxes sit on shelves in supermarket kosher aisles across the country.
Wander lauds grains as a superb stockpile food since they can last for years.
“Whole wheat, before it has been milled, has been known to last forever,” Wander said. “You have wheat from the time of the Pyramids that has been found and sprouted. You have grains, honeys, oils, salt… These are products that last a lifetime if they are dry and stored in cold, dark conditions.”
He also managed to source and stockpile kosher MREs (meals-ready-to-eat), or military rations made for kosher-observant members of the US army. Overall, it took Wander three years to stock up on enough food to see his family of eight through only three months.
“In times of real disaster, in a situation of pikuach nefesh, we’re able to suspend all [Jewish] laws, including all kosher laws,” Wander said, using the Hebrew term for cases of life and death. When Wander lived in Pittsburgh he raised chickens (kosher) and rabbits (not so much).
“Rabbits are a great prepper food and a very good food resource because they are much higher in protein and reproduce much faster than chickens,” he said. Rabbits can have up to 40 young each year, which makes them an advantageous food source in a dire situation.
“You can think outside of the box and be imaginative when it comes to kosher and Shabbat,” Wander added. “These things would all likely be suspended in a real disaster situation.”
The ‘Wandering’ Jews
Though it might seem counter-intuitive, Wander emphasizes that having a network is key to long-term survival.
“Anyone who thinks they can do it on their own is delusional,” Wander said. “It’s just not realistic. In any long-term crisis, an individual would not be able to rough it alone. It doesn’t matter how deep underground his bunker is, you have to network with other people.”
When he lived in Pittsburgh, Wander rallied friends from the Jewish community and neighbors who would share preparedness tips, and conducted self-defense and medical drills to prepare for a terrorist attack.
“Skills are just as important, if not more important, than the equipment one has,” Wander said. “It’s very easy to go get equipment. You can go buy wheat, but if you don’t know how to mill it, it doesn’t accomplish anything.”
Weapons and first aid are essential. It’s great to get a gun, but it’s more dangerous to have one and not know how to use it
“Skills are important when it comes to food and water, but also when it comes to other things like communications,” said Wander, who is also a HAM radio operator. “Weapons and first aid are essential. It’s great to get a gun, but it’s more dangerous to have one and not know how to use it.”
In 2013, Wander posted an unsuccessful run for mayor of Pittsburgh, with prepping a key part of his campaign platform.
“When you have a population that is prepared, it’s going to be a safe place for everybody in times of need. Not everyone can have every resource and every skill, so you need to have a network that can rely on each other in times of need,” he said.
Though the coronavirus pandemic didn’t overly concern him and his new network of prepper friends in Israel, Wander encourages all Diaspora Jews to have a bag packed and ready to fly to Israel in one hand, and be prepping with the other.
“My last name is Wander; we’re the wandering Jews. For generations we’ve been exiled and wandering from place to place. I think our history should have instilled some sort of concept of being prepared,” he said.
“I joke that for observant Jews, all of our holidays revolve around preparedness — whether it be on Passover when we’re eating matzah, which is a long-term storage food, on Sukkot when we go out of our dwelling places and start living in shelters outside, or on Shabbat when we stop using electricity for a 24-hour period,” Wander said.
“All these kinds of things are preparing us in a certain way for not depending on society,” said Wander. “In a way, Orthodox people should be better prepared, but they’re not.”