Volunteer-led security is crucial to protect the Jewish community
Security is everyone’s responsibility
It seems ambitious, but it’s a proven approach that has significantly helped to safeguard Jewish communities across the globe: a volunteer-led security model that empowers community members to receive professional training and to take on a significant role in the protection of their institutions.
Faith-based communities and houses of worship – in particular the Jewish community – are facing the stark reality of growing security threats due to religiously motivated bias and violent extremism. During the latest round of conflict in the Middle East between Israel and the Gaza-based terrorist organization Hamas, anti-Jewish animus reared its ugly head from coast to coast. Community institutions and individuals were targeted and singled out for violence in a number of troubling incidents that ranged from assaults in broad daylight and the vandalism of synagogues, to the harassment and intimidation of restaurant diners and passersby on the street.
Although Jewish communities across the United States continue to enjoy uninterrupted communal life, the recent spate and scope of antisemitic incidents — together with the recent terrorist attacks in Pittsburgh, Poway, Jersey City, and Monsey in which Jews were brutally murdered — loom in the community’s collective consciousness.
Within this climate of hate, the data concretely makes us acutely aware of the problem at hand:
- According to the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) latest audit, antisemitic incidents remained at historically high levels in 2020 with a total of 2,024 incidents of assault, harassment and vandalism, making this tally the third-highest year for incidents against American Jews since the organization started tracking in 1979.
- After the recent violence between Israel and Hamas, ADL also found that three-quarters of American Jews are more concerned about antisemitism, with 60 percent having personally witnessed antisemitism. The poll also found that 40 percent are more concerned about their personal safety than before.
- The FBI’s latest report on hate crimes in 2019 showed that 63 percent of religiously-motivated attacks targeted Jews and Jewish institutions.
- Antisemitic hate crimes, per the New York Police Department (NYPD) increased by 37 percent in 2021 compared to 2020.
- In the most recent comprehensive Pew study, three-quarters of American Jews think there is more antisemitism today than there was five years ago, with just over half of the respondents saying they personally feel less safe than they did five years ago.
- The number of American Jews, according to the American Jewish Committee (AJC), who say they have avoided certain places or events out of concern for their safety as Jews, increased to one in three (31 percent) from one in four (25 percent) in their survey.
The goal of this “paradigm shift” in thinking about communal security is to mitigate and prevent future incidents and stems from tangible examples of how Jewish communities across Europe and Latin America employ a volunteer-led model to protect institutions. The model, which provides high level training and programs, puts community members in the best possible position to protect their own facilities at no cost to institutions. It was first adopted in the United States by CSS in 2007 when the nonprofit organization was established after the realization that American Jewish community needed to measurably improve its security.
Tragically, the need is even more acute now than it was then.
The American Jewish community must start taking cues from their counterparts overseas, who have successfully — albeit in a different environment — demonstrated their ability to thwart attacks. Those invested in and concerned about the safety of American Jewy do not have to look any further than the side streets of New York City in the Riverdale section of The Bronx to understand how the volunteer-led model proves successful. In April, a perpetrator vandalized several Jewish institutions in the same neighborhood over the course of a few days, creating a sense of vulnerability throughout the community. Trained volunteers from CSS were on site during one of the incidents and identified the presence of the offender, helping to provide key information to law enforcement, which subsequently resulted in an arrest. In this case, the presence of volunteers made a direct impact on the safety of this community.
In order for the Jewish community to take more ownership of its security in the face of rising levels of antisemitism, educating and training members to understand the basic elements of security will improve safety outcomes. A trained security volunteer who is serving his or her own community is in a unique position to recognize out of place objects or scenarios that private security, or even law enforcement, may not. The notion of an individual protecting their own synagogue or event, while family members and neighbors are inside, is a deeply impactful position; Jewish communal leaders — from clergy to executive leadership — must understand that this is how we become safer.
As the community readies itself for a summer when a higher volume of congregants will gather and, soon thereafter, assemble for the High Holidays, now is the time to place an extra emphasis on safety and security preparedness.
Paradoxically, the waning of the pandemic will give the community the gift of togetherness once Covid-related restrictions on public gatherings are lifted, but also may expose institutions to increased risk of incidents.
The Jewish community should abandon the mindset that insecurity is inevitable. We can — and must be — in a better position to diminish the threat of violent antisemitism and change the trajectory of intractability.
At the end of the day, security is everyone’s responsibility.
Richard Priem is Deputy National Director of the Community Security Service (CSS), the leading Jewish volunteer security nonprofit organization in the United States, and the former New York Director for International Affairs at ADL. He worked in a variety of security roles around the world, including as a counter-terrorism adviser to the U.N. Security Council.