You Can Secure Your Synagogue Against Violence

Last summer, Elan Carr, State Department special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, said that every American synagogue and Jewish community center should have armed guards.

If a fairly senior U.S. government official had made such a statement 10 years ago, he or she would have been deemed unstable.

But Carr spoke after the October, 2018 massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue and April, 2019 fatal shooting at a shul in Poway, Calif.—and before last December’s murderous attack on a kosher market in Jersey City, N.J., the butcher knife assault at a rabbi’s Chanukah celebration in Monsey, New York, and November’s nearly-fatal stabbing of a congregant walking to a synagogue in the same area.

Violence against Jews in the New York City region, examples of a years’-long but until last December little-reported wave, stunned but perhaps should not have surprised. Antisemitism—that is, hatred of Judaism, Jews and the Jewish state—is resurgent.

White nationalists fantasize a Jewish conspiracy to undermine an Anglo-Saxon America through immigration. Black Hebrew Israelites imagine they are the real Jews.

White nationalists were responsible for the Pittsburgh and Poway attacks, black Jew-haters for those in Jersey City. Bridging the homicidal extremes ideologically are Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and “woke” ideologues. Days after Pittsburgh, Farrakhan, sounding like the accused Pittsburgh shooter, ranted again about “satanic Jews” and “evil Zionists.” Some African American politicians in New Jersey deflected responsibility for antisemitic attacks to “gentrification” by Jewish newcomers.

In these times, Stephen D. Bryen has published a useful manual called Security for Holy Places: How to Build a Security Plan for Your Church, Synagogue, Mosque or Temple. Bryen ought to know. A senior fellow of the American Center for Democracy, a former deputy under-secretary of defense, expert in cyber-warfare, he’s also a member of his local synagogue’s security committee.

Bryen’s manual is not only for synagogues, churches, mosques and the like but also their schools, nurseries or senior residences and free-standing community centers.

“The truth is,” writes Bryen, of the more than 100,000 churches, 3,700 synagogues and 2,100 mosques, “only a fraction of holy places in the United States are secure. Most are open to all, which means worshipers and violent intruders. … For all of them the risk of attack is growing.”

Do better than ‘run, hide, fight’

What to do? “Good organization is all-important in assuring security for religious institutions, and good organization also means solid training for staff and security volunteers.” Though the decision to hire and post armed guards remains controversial, and expensive, Bryen’s view is “armed guards are very important to head off an attack, although guards alone cannot guarantee the safety of a congregation.”

Volunteer, unarmed “greeters”—deployed by a number of synagogues to screen visitors at the door during services—“are risking their lives trying to provide security if the assailant is heavily armed and determined, as often is the case.”

In jurisdictions that issue concealed carry permits, such as Virginia, armed congregants themselves can pose a potential danger in an active shooter situation unless they receive police-style instruction and train regularly.

After citing a number of attacks on holy places by individuals with a wide range of motivations, Bryen asserts that the FBI-promoted “run, hide, fight” concept “is a poor model.” Instead, an effective security plan “must account for the five minutes before police and emergency personnel arrive on the scene. … The five-minute period should not be squandered. Along with calling 911 [to report the emergency] there are a number of intermediate steps to help avoid or minimize casualties.”

Instead of “run, hide, fight” congregations should study the operational model “identify, intercept, isolate and protect.” And interception should begin not at the main entrance but on an  outside security perimeter.

Bryen reminds that “the purpose of any security plan is to protect and save lives”; the strategy should be active, not passive; and “the plan should be in effect and act as a deterrent before police arrive…. A proactive security plan needs careful organization and preparation,” especially since most attacks will come without warning from authorities.

Security for Holy Places will help synagogue planners improve internal and external security, learn about useful technology and potential sources of financial aid, among other things. It includes this epigraph: “But we prayed to our God, and because of them we set up a guard against them day and night.”—Nehemiah 4:9. A renewed threat calls, in part, for an update of the classic response.

The work is available in print at bookstores or https://securityforholyplaces.org or as an e-book through Amazon Kindle, Apple iBooks, Google Play or Barnes & Noble Nook.

Eric Rozenman, a former editor of B’nai B’rith’s International Jewish Monthly, is author of Jews Make the Best Demons: “Palestine” and the Jewish Question. Disclosure: He and the author of Security for Holy Places are friends of long standing.

About the Author
Eric Rozenman is a communications consultant in Washington, DC. He is a former Washington director of CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, and editor of B'nai B'rith's International Jewish Monthly magazine. Opinions expressed in Times of Israel blogs are his own.
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