As we celebrate Hanukkah during unprecedented-social distancing times, the central theme and story of this monumental holiday still remain ever so relevant today.
While of course, the landscape and context of threats facing the Jewish people in the second century BCE versus what Jewish communities are facing today is starkly different, we know the essential take-home point from Hanukkah is that the Jewish people took the state of their vulnerability with the utmost seriousness and overcame one of the strongest armies on the planet at the time. Thankfully today, we are not driving any standing armies away from our synagogues and community centers. However, there still exists a myriad of pernicious threats that aim to hinder Jewish life and the Jewish way of life by injecting fear and insecurity into our communities. During this holiday, we hold dear the tradition of collectively rededicating ourselves to ensure that Jewish tradition is passed on from generation to generation.
Now is the time to emulate the mindset of the Maccabees by changing the way in which we think about our safety and security. We have reached yet another year where Jews top the FBI’s annual report on hate crimes for religious groups targeted. Bold action in the realm of improved protection sorely needed.
When it comes to making sure these candles continue burning bright uninterrupted by terror, we know this battle cannot be waged alone. Judah and the Maccabees knew this reality quite intimately. The scope and breadth of today’s anti-Semitism and the volume of hate crimes afflicting Jewish communities across the United States, coupled with global anti-Semitic animus around the world, cannot be combated in a vacuum, which is why we need to prioritize our safety by taking tangible steps to improve it. While federal and state funding serve as a critical resource in securing communal institutions, the Hanukkah story of triumph teaches us that collective action saves lives.
Last Hanukkah, I witnessed extreme Jewish vulnerability firsthand — on the ground — in the immediate aftermath of some of the most brazen attacks on American Jewry in recent years. On December 10, 2019, just one year ago, two assailants killed a police officer and then subsequently stormed into a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, New Jersey where they killed the store’s owner and an employee. On December 28, 2019, an attacker entered the private home of a rabbi and then stabbed and wounded five individuals as they were gathering to celebrate Hanukkah in Monsey, New York, sending shockwaves and a visibly identifiable sense of timidity throughout both communities.
By no means am I attempting to push out a message that the sky is falling for the Jewish community, nor am I advocating that we erect fortresses to stop anti-Semitic incidents, but there are lessons to be learned about shifting our worldview on security. As Richard Priem, the Community Security Service’s (CSS) deputy director recently emphasized in Security Magazine: Basic security measures save lives.
At CSS, we know that anti-Semitism does not take breaks which is why we have undertaken an expansion in our operations with a heavy emphasis on empowering those who are involved in their respective communities to be our eyes and ears on the ground, and provide them with the highest levels of training from industry experts.
Our volunteer model at CSS is centered around providing the necessary tools for community members to have a direct impact on the security of their own synagogues and communal institutions. Since taking the helm at CSS earlier this summer, it was critical for me to understand the big picture and granular security challenges that synagogues and institutions face. Guided by our subject matter expert staff and trainers, I was afforded the opportunity on multiple occasions during the pandemic to witness intricacies that affect our safety that may not be apparent to the untrained eye. I am very much looking forward to continuing to volunteer outside of my day-to-day operational responsibilities in our national headquarters.
In order for us to stem this concerning rising tide of anti-Jewish hatred that has tragically manifested itself in violent acts, the Jewish community needs a more aggressive all hands-on deck approach:
- Understanding that you — no matter if you’re the executive director of an organization or a college student — can help make us safer by getting trained and volunteering in your own community. Security is everyone’s responsibility;
- Creating a culture of vigilance. While security awareness IQ ranges from person to person and institution to institution, synagogue executives and religious leadership must move in a better direction towards proactively prioritizing the dedication of resources that are critical to creating sound security plans, capabilities and an engaged community;
- Forging real partnerships within our fold and outside of our community that seek to change the course of our defenselessness. We know from experience that pooling expertise between communal entities and interfaith collaborations go beyond optics. The range of security challenges we face are quite intricate with no one organization or governmental body holding the key to solving this seemingly intractable trend;
- Speaking out consistently and relentlessly on issues like hate crime legislation and state funding for security resources for religious institutions, and using your megaphone – whether through social media or on the ground activism – to loudly condemn and bring attention to the forces of domestic extremism that seek to do us harm. We have to name the hate in order to know how to thwart it.
It can be quite consuming to reflect on what took place in Jersey City and Monsey a mere one year ago. The vivid images of communities feeling hopeless about their safety has taken a toll on me personally.
However, I find hope in our ability to do something about this. Like Judah Maccabee understood the need to push back against the forces of evil, we too, today, can have a hand in carrying on that tradition of ensuring a strong, vibrant and eternal Jewish community.
Happy Hanukkah to all who are celebrating.
Evan Bernstein is CEO of The Community Security Service (CSS), a 501(c)3 organization founded in 2007 that proactively protects the people, institutions, and events of the American Jewish community. Partnering with Jewish organizations, governmental authorities, and law enforcement agencies, CSS safeguards the community by training volunteers in professional security techniques, providing physical security, and raising public awareness about safety issues. CSS has a trained membership of over 5,000 volunteers, representing the rich diversity of the American Jewish community.