Shul patrol

Community Security Service expands to Southeast as antisemitism rises in the U.S.

Representatives from dozens of communities from Kentucky to northern Florida attend one-day training workshop in Atlanta

The Community Security Service, which trains and oversees volunteer security guards for Jewish institutions, is expanding to dozens more locations across the southeast United States, the organization told eJewishPhilanthropy.

Last week, representatives from 37 communities, most of them small, gathered in Atlanta for a one-day workshop to start the process of training them as volunteer security personnel, Richard Priem, chief operating officer of CSS, told eJP.

The workshop was funded by the Marcus Family Foundation and received organizational help from the Institute for Southern Jewish Life and the Atlanta Federation, Priem said. The participants came from eight states across the southeast, from Kentucky to northern Florida.

The goal of the workshop was to “kickstart our presence in the Southeast, where we haven’t had a strong presence,” Priem said. “These communities are small, but they have high rates of antisemitic activities. But because they are so small, they don’t get the attention that they should get considering the threats they are facing.”

Priem noted the findings of the Anti-Defamation League’s recent survey of antisemitism in the United States, which found that a disproportionately high number of incidents occurred in areas with smaller Jewish populations.

“Antisemitism is on the rise in the U.S. and we need to do everything we can to protect our community and our institutions. CSS and other institutions are on the front lines every day offering trainings and real expertise to ensure that our synagogues and its members can live a flourishing life,” Bernie Marcus, founder of the Atlanta-based Home Depot and the Marcus Foundation, said in a statement.

Largely based on the Community Security Trust model developed in the United Kingdom, CSS trains local community members to serve as security guards in their synagogues and other communal institutions. The rationale behind it is that a paid security guard, no matter how dedicated, will not know the community nearly as well as someone who is a part of it, meaning they might not be able to tell when something in the community is amiss. A member of a synagogue is also more likely to feel personally connected to the other congregants and thus more responsible for their safety, Priem explained.

“When you train someone whose friends and family are inside, they’re going to pay attention. They have skin in the game,” he said.

CSS has trained more than 6,000 people in the U.S. and has approximately 2,500 active volunteers. Priem, who grew up in Amsterdam, said he was used to the concept of community members needing to play a role in providing security for the synagogue, but acknowledged that this was a relatively new concern in the U.S., where most Jews have historically felt safe.

According to Priem, things started to shift with the deadly shootings in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018 and in the Chabad of Poway in Poway, Calif., in 2019. At first, he said, people were inclined to dismiss these as extraordinary occurrences, but after the hostage-taking at Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, last year, Jewish communities started taking security concerns more seriously.

“This is not an anomaly. It’s a trend,” Priem said. “The threat is increasing, and we all have to take this more seriously. There are too many synagogues, too many Jewish communal events that don’t have enough security.”

According to the ADL study, last year saw the largest number of antisemitic incidents since the organization began tracking them. Based on the first quarter of 2023, Priem said this year is on track to surpass 2022.

While this can be addressed by spending large sums of money to increase physical security measures – what experts call “target hardening” – volunteers with basic training can also thwart many potential attacks, noticing things that don’t look quite right, like a suspicious car parked outside the building.

“They don’t need a Jewish federation with a big security budget, they can get started with whatever they have,” Priem said. “A lot of it is also about being eyes and ears. Several people got arrested because our people reported it. You didn’t hear about it because they were arrested before they could do anything.”