Yael Shahar
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Synagogue security: Not a do-it-yourself job!

5 rules from a veteran of 'various security services,' or how a well-trained team can make the difference between life and death in an emergency
(Image by Shutterbug75 from Pixabay)

In the wake of the horrific attack in Monsey this week, following a slew of previous antisemitic attacks, my feed is full of posts suggesting that it’s time for Jews to take responsibility for their own safety. Suggestions range from “Jews should take self-defense training” to “Shuls should have armed guards.” But by far the most common suggestion is for members of synagogue to come to shul armed.

Here is a general response written under my “other” hat, that of veteran of various security services:

1. A handgun is no match for a rifle in terms of stopping power or accuracy. Professional security people train long and hard just to avoid friendly fire instances in a firefight. It is doubtful that most armed congregants will have that kind of training. I can think of nothing worse than a number of people armed with handguns all opening fire in a crowded space.

2. Given that reality, it is preferable to have one or two people with appropriate weapons whose job it is to stand guard during services, and to monitor entrances. These people should undergo frequent proficiency training, so that in the event of an emergency they will be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. Their whole attention should be on providing security, not on taking part in services.

If the congregation cannot hire professionals, they may still be able to send members of the congregation for training, so that they can provide a basic level of security during services.

3. Prior to services, the security team should do a walk-through of the premises to make sure there are no unauthorized people present. Once services start, all doors should be either locked or manned by a security guard. (For fire safety, doors need to be capable of being opened from the inside.) Windows overlooked from nearby buildings should be opaqued or provided with appropriate hardening.

4. After services, and before the doors are opened, the security team should do an overview of the exit areas, looking for anyone suspicious, anyone sitting in a parked car waiting for services to let out, etc. People exiting services are likely to be the weakest point, assuming that access to the building during services is denied.

5. Ideally, every place of worship should have a professional threat assessment* carried out, identifying vulnerabilities and matching those vulnerabilities with the capabilities of potential attackers to point out how best to allocate security funds. It does little good to put one’s security budget into preventing car bombings when the most likely attacker is going to be a shooter masquerading as a visitor or someone breaking in with a machete.

Summing up: While synagogue security is not a job for amateurs, if a congregation cannot afford to hire a professional security team, the next best thing is to provide professional training to several members of the congregation so that they can provide at least a basic level of security to the building during services. A well-trained team can make the difference between life and death in an emergency, and they need not be armed to do so.

*Full disclosure: I’m currently part of a non-profit organization of former security professionals who do threat assessments at cost for places of worship. We use the same algorithms as those used by Israeli counter-terrorism services to secure Israeli venues abroad.

About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.
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