Feeling safe in our communities

Why Jewish educators need safety training

In Short

We may not have a consensus on what our safety plans should look like; it is easy to get mired in the controversial aspects of security planning. But this should not prevent us from partnering in the work of creating communities where we feel safe.

Does your synagogue have a safety plan? Has your community completed a threat vulnerability assessment in the last five years? When was your safety plan last updated? When was the last time you practiced it with your teachers? With your students? Do you know where your first aid kits are? Do you know if they have been restocked any time recently? Would everyone know what to do if there was an emergency? 

Many if not most Jewish religious educators cannot answer these questions. And many of us struggle with feeling safe in our community’s spaces. We may not have a consensus on what our safety plans should look like; it is easy to get mired in the controversial aspects of security planning. But this should not prevent us from partnering in the work of creating communities where we feel safe. As teachers and community leaders, we frequently shepherd the largest numbers of people through our buildings – including small children, who need guidance and direction. Many of us are aware that this is a time when our community is most vulnerable and most likely to need an effective safety plan. Because of our central role in our communities, Jewish religious educators need safety and security training.

The safety plan your synagogue creates can and should be tailored to the ethics and needs of your community. In some congregations, the presence of law enforcement or firearms will alienate congregants and make the community feel less safe. In other congregations, uniformed police officers and other highly visible security measures will support the community’s feeling of safety. Creating a diverse security committee is one way that you can ensure that different voices in your community are empowered. Reckoning together with the challenges of creating an open and welcoming community that is also secure and protected is a daunting task. While we may not agree on what this should look like, we can all agree that avoiding this work resolves nothing. There are no solutions in stasis.

Likewise, a good safety plan supports everyone in the community and should be carefully attuned to the needs of children. Younger children can be taught how to exit a building in case of an emergency without focusing on the array of horrors experienced in Jewish communities. Older children might need space to process the emotions that arise when practicing an evacuation plan – particularly if they are already participating in active shooter drills in secular school. While some of us may be inclined to turn away from these topics – whether we feel unprepared to discuss them or traumatized by our own experiences – we need to understand where this lacuna leaves our youth. If we want to build strong communities, we cannot avoid difficult conversations. 

The threats that our communities face are grave and real, especially in a historical moment of surging antisemitism and white supremacist violence. The recent horrors of Colleyville, Poway, and Pittsburgh are not distant memories, and their painful resonance continues. The Anti Defamation League has documented that there were more antisemitic incidents in the United States in 2021 than in any other year since they began keeping records in 1979. As Prof. Deborah Lipstadt, the US special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, powerfully stated: going to services is an act of courage.  The resilience demanded of Jewish educators is twofold, as we face the combined challenges of antisemitism and gun violence in our schools nationwide.

While most educators can speak volumes about the impact of the COVID-19 epidemic in our communities, far fewer of us can speak cogently about the epidemic of antisemitism. By including antisemitism and violence in our own pedagogical curricula, we empower ourselves to process this ongoing trauma with our youth, within our communities. When our children are confronted by antisemitism in schools or our communities are struck by hatred, many of us feel powerless, fearful, and angry. We need training and preparation to engage this hatred as part of our educational programming. We need to understand our safety plan as an important part of this training. 

Children have unprecedented access to information via their interaction with the internet and social media. If we are not teaching about antisemitism and violence fueled by hatred, it does not mean our students are not learning about it. Yet we cannot assume that access to information equals the ability to process or understand it; there is a critical difference between information and wisdom. Religious educators have a vital role in helping our students to understand what they are hearing, to feel empowered rather than victimized.

We can quickly grasp the unique and vital role that religious educators play in their community’s safety planning. First, we can learn the answers to the basic questions, like where our first aid kits are or how to evacuate in case of emergency. Second, we can play an important role in ensuring that our safety plan engages the particular needs of our students. We know that young people have different needs than adults, and we are in a unique position to address those needs. And finally, we can work with our students towards a deeper understanding of how our safety planning serves them as individuals as well as our broader communities. 

In order to do these three things, we can start integrating safety training into our educational training and preparation for teachers. Teachers in our communities should have copies of the safety plan and know where to send their questions and concerns. If we identify training that we need or gaps in our plan, we need to know what resources exist to help us. If we find flaws or limitations in our plan, we need to be in conversation with our leadership to improve our safety. Finally and importantly, religious educators are humans too: we need to feel safe in our communities, and we need to be empowered to protect our students. For all of these reasons, Jewish religious educators need safety training. If your community does not have safety training in place, now is the time to begin.

Jen Zak, is director of education at Temple Sinai of Brookline, Mass. Prior to working as a Jewish educator, Zak, an attorney, worked in risk assessment. 

Appendix: Where to Begin

Below is a list of resources to assist your community at different stages of planning. Whether you have a robust security plan in place and are seeking to enhance it, or whether you are only beginning the process of creating a safety plan, these resources offer many types of training and support for Jewish educators. This list is not intended to be comprehensive, but to offer a broad overview of available support at national, governmental and local levels:

  • On a local level, communities can reach out to their local law enforcement agency and identify their Terrorism Liaison Officer (TLO). The TLO is a point of contact between the synagogue and public safety agencies. By cultivating a relationship with local law enforcement, the community can be in conversation about their needs, their concerns and any threat assessments that may require expert input and evaluation. Many Jewish communities also have local organizations that offer logistical support, funding and educational and informational programs on safety and security advancement.
  • Organizations including the Anti Defamation League (ADL) also work in support of synagogue security and offer free, ongoing trainings for educators and other synagogue personnel. Rabbi Cytron-Walker credited the support and training he received from the ADL for saving his life and the lives of his congregants when they were taken hostage in their Colleyville synagogue. These trainings include everything from situational awareness development to emergency planning and provide contacts and resources for communities at all stages of safety planning. See https://www.adl.org to find your local ADL office.
  • Many agencies offer first aid and health emergency training for organizations, including CPR and AED trainings. See for example the organizational training programs offered by the American Red Cross at https://www.redcross.org/take-a-class/organizations
  • On a federal level, there are many different types of partnerships with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Federal Bureau of Investigtion (FBI), and special fusion centers that support anti-terrorism efforts and ongoing security training nationwide. The FBI has community outreach specialists who can help you in your safety planning, directing you to the resources and people who can support your organization. For more information and to identify your local centers, see: https://www.dhs.gov/building-law-enforcement-and-homeland-security-partnerships
  • A wealth of information on security assessments for houses of worship is available through the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. Here you can learn about the protective security advisors and cybersecurity advisors who serve your community, find self assessment tools for your synagogue, and find support for annual reviews of your community’s safety plan. See: https://www.cisa.gov
  • Nationally, the Secure Community Network offers guidance, assessments, resources, trainings and crisis management support to Jewish communities throughout the United States. If your community needs assistance in assessing its vulnerability to various threats including natural disasters, terrorism incidents or other types of emergency situations, the SCN can provide an array of support. See: https://securecommunitynetworks.org