Jewish World

Is Your Synagogue Safe?

By Michael Orbach

After the Har Nof synagogue massacre in Israel this past November that left four synagogue members and one Israeli police officer dead, followed by the massacre in the kosher supermarket in Paris, security experts in America are urging caution and vigilance.

“In the last eighteen months, we’ve seen a paradigm change,” explains Paul Goldenberg, head of Secure Community Network (SCN). Created by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, United Jewish Communities and the American Jewish Committee in 2004, SCN is dedicated to protecting and securing Jewish communities across the United States. “We have seen people who are angry and want to attack Israel look at shuls as an extension of Israel’s assets. What happened in Israel can happen anywhere,” says Goldenberg.

Currently, SCN serves as a central address for information about security threats to the Jewish community.

“SCN was formed to become a partner and communications network,” says Goldenberg. “If the FBI or the Department of Homeland Security has a situation that threatens the Jewish community, we can use our communication network to share information instantaneously. We can reach hundreds, if not thousands, of Jewish institutions.

“Thirty-eight to forty percent of terrorist attacks planned or thwarted since 9/11 had Jewish targets in their sights,” he continues. “It’s not paranoia.”

SCN has gradually evolved to provide online training and workshops to shul administrators across the United States and the world. Goldenberg stresses that the most important factor in dealing with any terrorist incident is advance preparation.

Goldenberg shares the following advice for shuls and Jewish institutions:

Develop strong relationships with law enforcement. Bring law enforcement officials to your schools and shuls and share your blueprints with them. Have them provide security assessments of your buildings.

Devise a security plan. Every institution in the Jewish community—small or large— needs to have a plan on how to survive a shooting, what to do if there’s a bombing and how to handle any catastrophic event.

Perform “tabletop exercises” where you act out your security plan. Put together four to five people who are responsible for the infrastructure of the institution—from the most senior leadership official to the maintenance people—and act out various scenarios and how to respond to them.

Conduct Training. Law enforcement and Homeland Security leaders recommend that organizations train their staff and constituencies in security awareness, especially the signs of suspicious behavior. If you see something, say something.

Goldenberg was a speaker at the most recent conference for synagogue executives organized by the Orthodox Union’s Karasick Department of Synagogue Services in November. More than forty synagogues from across North America participated in the event.

“With the global threats of Hamas and ISIS and anti-Semitism on the rise, many shuls and communities throughout the country are deeply concerned and troubled,” explains Yehuda Friedman, associate director of Synagogue Services.

Goldenberg points out a rare silver lining regarding the threats to the American Jewish community.

“Abroad, there are still policing agencies that look at their Jewish communities as foreign entities,” he says. “In the US, that’s not the case. US law enforcement agencies see synagogues as their own, and many law executives take it personally [when their Jewish communities are attacked].”

Michael Orbach is a staff writer at the OU.

This article was featured in the Spring 2015 issue of Jewish Action.