American Jews Need to Make Security Central to Communal Work

By Stephen Bryen and Andrew Apostolou

In May 2017, a man with a meat cleaver threatened customers in two Jewish stores in northern London. Although people called the police, the first responders came from a volunteer Jewish security organization, the Shomrim. They sprang into action, isolating the man and the area before armed police arrived. It was the same story in mid-June, when a van hit numerous worshippers outside the Finsbury Park mosque in northern London. Again, the Shomrim were quickly on the scene helping the wounded.

The Shomrim are civilians who have police and security training, and who patrol the streets. Like their counterparts in the U.K.’s Community Security Trust (CST) – which has dozens of full-time staffers who are seen outside synagogues and schools – the Shomrim are Jewish auxiliaries to the police. The British police cannot be everywhere and cannot know every community. The CST and the Shomrim provide that vital extra layer of protection, reassuring the broader public and showing the authorities that British Jews are serious about security.

By contrast, the American Jewish community is unprepared for today’s security problems. Whereas British Jews made a strategic decision decades ago to take their own security seriously, the U.S. lacks a similar commitment. This failure to make security a core component of Jewish communal life leaves synagogues, day schools, community centers and Jewish organizations vulnerable. Despite the attacks – some of them fatal – targeting American Jews, the community has been largely apathetic in taking protective measures.

The time has come for a complete change in attitude. American Jews need to make security an integral part of institutional administration and take steps to improve the security of every Jewish institution. They should not rely solely on the police, who have other priorities, to proactively protect Jewish institutions. Nor should they expect the intelligence and security services to thwart plots at the planning stages – most recent jihadi attacks have come as surprises.

On a national level, this means building up communal security resources. For example, there is already a group called the Community Security Service (CSS) that provides training to synagogues, schools and other organizations. The CSS has trained some 3,000 volunteers and should be tasked with training many more.

Complementing the national response, each Jewish organization must take three measures: observation, protection and training.

Observation means being aware of your surroundings and immediately reporting odd behavior. Potential attackers often scout their targets. The white nationalist who killed three people outside a JCC and a Jewish retirement home near Kansas City in 2014 previously had driven up to the JCC and parked in front multiple times. Similarly, an Islamic State sympathizer currently on trial for planning to bomb an Aventura, Fla., synagogue in 2016 went to see the building “to assess its vulnerabilities,” prosecutors have reported.

Protection means armed guards. These should be professionals with radios linked directly to local police. Armed guards act as a deterrent. In the extreme scenario of an assault with firearms, the armed guards slow down the attackers and seek to confine them to one area while law enforcement arrives.

Armed guards can help save lives. Unarmed guards do not have lifesaving resources to hold off an attack.

Unarmed volunteers should support the armed guards. The volunteers can patrol outside buildings and show a security presence that deters would-be attackers carrying out reconnaissance. Training involves providing communities – including synagogue congregants and staffers – with focused and relevant security practices. They will learn, with training and practice, what to look for in assessing a potential threat. They also need to know how to manage an evacuation or lockdown, a knife attack, an active shooter, a bomb threat and other security situations.

These security measures would demonstrate that American Jewish organizations are serious about their own futures and will rise to protect themselves.

Stephen Bryen was the U.S. deputy under secretary of defense for trade security policy and the founding director of the Defense Technology Security Administration. Andrew Apostolou is a security and foreign affairs analyst based in Washington, D.C.