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After Oct. 7, all US Jews need security training

The high threat level means communities must tighten security, including by empowering members to protect their own
Police officers stand watch outside the United Synagogue of Hoboken, Nov. 3, 2022, in Hoboken, New Jersey. (AP Photo/Ryan Kryska, File)
Police officers stand watch outside the United Synagogue of Hoboken, Nov. 3, 2022, in Hoboken, New Jersey. (AP Photo/Ryan Kryska, File)

The October 7th massacre carried out by Hamas against Israeli civilians was a historic event with global implications. As I was visiting Israel that week with a delegation of law enforcement officials from New York, staying in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, I immediately understood that the unprecedented amount of rockets flying over our heads, combined with frantic messages from our local counterparts, meant that Israelis were waking up to a dark new reality.

Not immediately clear, however, was that the subsequent war to eliminate Hamas and rescue the remaining hostages would quickly birth an entirely new and unprecedented level of vulnerability for the American Jewish community.

As the leader of the Community Security Service (CSS), a non-profit dedicated to the security of American Jews by training and empowering community members to protect their own institutions and events, it was only a matter of days before we received reports from our teams that indicated a new threat environment. Three months after October 7th, a poll by the Anti-Defamation League found that antisemitic incidents skyrocketed in a 361-percent increase compared to the same period last year, prompting FBI Director Christopher Wray to issue a dire warning that antisemitism was reaching historic levels.

This reality is not only evidenced in hate crime statistics. Research by the American Jewish Committee points to mounting concerns among the Jewish community, with 93 percent of Jews surveyed saying that antisemitism is now an issue, and 63 percent calling their status less secure than the previous year. Around the world, Jews are experiencing an uptick in violent and deadly incidents. Faced with this alarming state of affairs, a new way of thinking about security is needed that empowers the community to continue to participate safely and proudly in all aspects of Jewish life.

The spike in antisemitism cannot be traced solely to the white supremacists that drove hate crimes against the Jewish community in the past. Nor are the targets narrowed to the synagogues and Jewish establishments that have been the victim of high-profile attacks in recent years. For example, a poll commissioned by Hillel International and others yielded a sobering picture for Jewish students on campus – not a typical hotbed of white supremacy – finding that 73 percent experienced or witnessed anti-Jewish hate since the start of the 2023-2024 school year. In October 2023, Jewish students at Cornell University faced a series of violent antisemitic threats on their campus.

The stigmatization of Jews in America and abroad – together with the rapidly evolving nature of violent extremism – now afflicts all Jewish corners in and outside of religious gathering places. Following a call from former Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal to target “zionists” abroad, some Jewish preschools decided to temporarily close their doors out of safety concerns.

Not unlike the post-9/11 era, when federal law enforcement agencies engaged the larger public to make security everyone’s responsibility, the American Jewish community can – and has started to – take more collective ownership over its security. The torrent of hate that ensued after October 7th has changed the nature and scope of the threat environment for the foreseeable future. The response needs to be a multi-layered approach to security. 

Thankfully, federal and state governments are increasing financial support for houses of worship through a non-profit security grant. Other measures include steps taken by several community organizations carrying out yeoman’s work to proactively liaise with law enforcement and monitor online threats. However, an often underutilized element is training community members to serve as eyes and ears as an additional on-the-ground layer of security.

Things need to change – and fast.

In Europe and South America, everyday Jews have deployed this mindset for decades and lowered their vulnerability substantially. In March 2021, French Jews in Marseille prevented a terror attack when parents used their security training to quickly recognize the nature of a specific threat at a school. In October 2019, German Jews avoided an active threat at their synagogue in Halle by following simple security protocols that were widely disseminated to and understood by all congregants.

We can point to success stories in the United States as well. In December, Jewish volunteers thwarted a threat at their synagogue in Washington, DC. In 2022, a combination of community organizations and volunteers worked with law enforcement to help arrest armed individuals in Manhattan. In 2021, a perpetrator who vandalized several Jewish institutions in the Bronx was stopped after trained community members were able to identify the attacker.

These instances illustrate that where this mindset has taken root, the Jewish community is better protected. From a religious individual who attends Sabbath services, a non-affiliated participant at a Jewish event on campus, to a parent dropping their kids of at day school – everyone can learn to step in when needed.

This is what we mean by a multilayered security effort. In order to respond to the new and unprecedented wave of antisemitic threats, we need an empowered, trained and resilient Jewish community that is willing and able to help protect their own.

About the Author
Richard Priem is the acting Chief Executive Officer of the non-profit Community Security Service (CSS), the leading Jewish community-based security organization in the United States that provides training and on-the-ground security to over 500 Jewish institutions each year.