taking stock

Here are the lessons Jewish security officials learned during the first High Holiday season since the Colleyville attack

Officials said lingering pandemic-inspired measures have, in some ways, made it harder to keep worshippers safe. 

Ahead of every major Jewish holiday, the leading Jewish security agencies drive home the same message: Have a plan. Make sure you understand your building. Secure entrances and exits. Be in touch with law enforcement. 

Now, nearly four years after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, community security officials believe that the message is beginning to stick at synagogues across the country. But they also told eJewishPhilanthropy that lingering pandemic-inspired measures have, in some ways, made it harder to keep worshippers safe. 

“Outdoor services are maybe here to stay, with or without COVID, and that’s something that’s definitely new in terms of security,” Evan Bernstein, CEO of the Community Security Service (CSS), which trains volunteers to act as a security presence at synagogues, told eJP. “From a logistical standpoint, you’re dealing with something that’s not a hardened building. A parking lot or a tent was maybe not thought of originally from a security standpoint.”

The Secure Community Network, which coordinates security nationally for Jewish institutions, published a two-page rundown ahead of the High Holidays on the “Top Ten Security Considerations for Outdoor Services.” In addition to the measures SCN recommends for any large event, the document instructs synagogues to develop a traffic control plan and secure the perimeter of the outdoor event. 

“It’s going to mean more people, it’s going to mean controlling access and how we’re letting people in, making sure that if we have to maybe shut down roads, sidewalks, that we have to be more cognizant of that,” Bradley Orsini, SCN’s senior national security advisor, told eJP. “Whoever we’re letting into our inner perimeter, they should [belong] there.”

Orsini said long-running staffing shortages at police departments across the country have also made it harder for synagogues to coordinate their security policy with local precincts that may already be stretched thin. SCN, which has been led by former law enforcement officials since its creation in 2004, has long recommended coordination with local police as a centerpiece of synagogue security. 

“A lot of synagogues had trouble hiring off-duty or on duty police officers because of the [rise in] demand, and because we’ve seen an uptick in shortages in local police departments across the country,” Orsini said. “I think we [had to] increase our preparedness even earlier this year based on all those factors.”

Alongside those challenges, security officials and experts say, security has remained top-of-mind for a growing number of American Jews following the string of attacks on synagogues and other Jewish institutions that began in Pittsburgh in 2018 and included a hostage situation at Temple Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, in January. There have also been rashes of street attacks on Orthodox Jews in New York City. 

Following the Colleyville attack, Jewish organizations lobbied for an increase in federal funds to secure places of worship, and $250 million was allocated to that end in 2022, up from $180 million last year. Security organizations have also partnered with each other. SCN, CSS and the Anti-Defamation League all have bilateral partnerships to share information and coordinate with each other. CSS has seen a growth of more than 10% in the number of synagogues and volunteers it works with since 2021. The number of synagogues now stands at approximately 200. 

“Reality took over,” Carly Maisel, a board member of CSS and the Community Security Initiative in New York, told eJP. “The American Jewish experience has changed, and the American Jewish community is trying to catch up to that change. We have now made a mindset shift.”

Maisel hopes that ordinary congregants will take increasing responsibility for their congregations’ security, rather than solely relying on an armed presence at the door. 

“Everybody in the community has to feel security is partly their problem, because if you don’t call out the suspicious person, if you don’t notice your unlocked door, if you don’t notice that your cameras aren’t working, it doesn’t matter if there’s an armed guard on the front door,” she said. “That should be the last line of defense, not the first line.”

Providing  ordinary congregants with security knowledge and giving them a sense of responsibility is the raison d’etre of Bernstein’s group, CSS. But at a more fundamental level — noting that some synagogues have continued to hold virtual services — Bernstein hopes those who can safely return to services in-person without risks to their health continue to do so, even if gathering in large numbers could pose a greater security risk than High Holidays on Zoom.

“There are definite, definitive threats… but Judaism is about being in synagogue with other congregants,” he said. “It’s been that way for over 1,000 years. [Security] can’t be at the expense of traditional shul Judaism. People who are losing that are losing a big portion of what Judaism is.”