Synagogue Security

The shooting this past Shabbos at a Chabad shul near San Diego is a harsh reminder of the reality we now inhabit.

I’m not a security “expert.” I’ve been in the military for over two decades, as an infantryman, and I worked as a civilian for nearly a decade for a security products manufacturer.  I am not law enforcement, and I do not have first responder-style training to active shooters like military police would.  However, I have real-world experience with site security, several levels of combatives (our Army close quarters training), I’ve trained and been the trainer on small arms marksmanship for a very long time, and I know my capabilities in emergencies.

It’s not hard to leverage that background to lead from the front with regards to the security of my community.

One of the things that Rabbi Goldstein said with regards to the shooting at his synagogue was that they welcome every visitor as if they are the prophet Elijah.

I feel the same way.

But Elijah better be prepared to show some ID.

The Anti-Defamation League and the Department of Homeland Security have put out a variety of publications that are very helpful to organizations struggling to find an appropriate security posture in this emerging reality, post-Squirrel Hill and San Diego.

My synagogue has allowed me to put together a comprehensive policy that covers everything from active shooters and bomb threats to organizing a community response in the aftermath of a tragedy.  Every piece of it is vital in your organizational response to these horrors.  It’s just as important to provision for picking up the pieces as it is to prepare for the actual tragedy itself.  People are going to be traumatized and reluctant to come back.  Congregants will be dealing with grief.  Questions will be asked about what your institution did to ensure the security of your congregation.  You need to be prepared to answer those questions, if not to the media, to your own flock.

I have a couple of steps that I believe are working for our congregation, and can work for yours.

  1.  Designate a committee of people who will make security their fundamental mission in your synagogue.  These shomrim have clear “guardian” personality types.  Ex-military, reservists, law enforcement often make the best choices.
  2.  That committee must be prepared to bear the emotional burden of congregational skepticism, but they also must be the worst-case scenario skeptics, the Israeli-style “10th Man”
  3.  Your synagogue must adopt the security protocols that are formulated, and the security committee must be there to fight off complacency like it’s Korach’s rebellion.

Security can rot on the vine if it’s not taken seriously.  I can speak from experience on this: Complacency sets in quickly, in dribs and drabs, until process is an afterthought.  It is something that needs to be proctored and reviewed by a committed group of people.  I’d suggest the committee be kept evergreen, but in smaller communities such as ours, it’s simply not practical.

A major contributing factor to complacency is the desire for a community to be welcoming.  We have a mandate, as Jews, to feed the hungry, to tend to the poor…tzedek tzedek tirdof, in other words.  So many of our congregations care about tikkun olam, and find onerous security measures to be antithetical.

Change the frame.  Look at identification as a mechanism for your board to get to know newcomers.  Turn the guardian at the gate into a welcome party!  My old synagogue took Relational Judaism and ran with it.  Members of the board staffed our doors, and we were an urban synagogue across from a hospital with occasional releases of mental health intakes that posed problems.  Synagogues that embrace single points of entry, which is a smart course of action during these times, should ensure that security person at the door is also a greeter.  While many members of the board might be reluctant to be a security presence at an entrance, they might not think twice if the duty is described in its relational context.

Still, you have to be willing to turn away the indigent or those whose presence could be disruptive.  This can be challenging for many passively-oriented folks.  I have to be honest, it poses a challenge to me, not because I’m a Care Bear, but because I place great importance on our mandate to care for the stranger.

Build bridges in the community over security.  We know there’s always two shuls in a town, the one you belong to, and the one you’ll never set foot in.  But we’re all in this together.  We all feel it when one of our communities from any walk of Jewish life is attacked.  We often share communal resources, such as a mikveh, JCC, or cemetery.  We all observe the same holidays, however we do it.  It’s useful to consider finding means to collaborate over security.  And frankly, it’s an opportunity to open a line to other houses of worship, be they mosques or churches.  If your synagogue is shomer shabbos, you can ask adjacent communities to help watch out.

It’s also important to keep in mind that as potential new congregants evaluate whether or not they join a congregation, site security is increasingly going to become a factor for their consideration.

Will my family be safe here?

I’m not suggesting that it’s appropriate to turn a security protocol into a membership sales pitch, but it can be mentioned positively in membership literature for religious schools, events, and services.  A simple line like, “at our synagogue, we take the security of our community very seriously.  Our building(s) feature state of the art security technology and processes designed to ensure your family’s safety, without degrading the spirit of community.”

We’re all feeling our way through this.  Many of us have been through this before, in the wake of Islamic terrorists who shot the Seattle JCC many years ago.  We’re all acutely more aware of the threat today.  Our kids are dealing with it in ways we haven’t necessarily seen for a generation, according to ADL stats.

My final piece of advice is this:  be aware of what anti-Semitism is proximal to your community.  Where we live, Islamic terror is much less likely than white supremacists would be.  This may not be the case in other areas, where the confluence of Jewish communities and other communities have lead to tensions that result in violence.  Don’t politicize it in any direction.  Don’t wince at calling the threat what it is.  If black teenagers are assaulting your congregants, say so.   If you are worried that you have an anti-Zionist Muslim community nearby, you should put it on your evaluation radar.  You cannot wish away reality with political correctness.  It need not be a referendum on the character of the adjacent community; it’s merely an acknowledgment of the presence of factors that affect your safety and security.  Realize that if you are suburban or rural, a white supremacist with an infantry-style long gun is a likelier threat.  It’s pragmatism…assume the worst and hope for the best.



Writer, President of Bangor's Congregation Beth Israel, soldier, programmer, father, musician, Heeb, living in the woods of Maine with three ladies and a dog.

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About Brian

Brian Kresge

Brian Kresge

Writer, President of Bangor's Congregation Beth Israel, soldier, programmer, father, musician, Heeb, living in the woods of Maine with three ladies and a dog.

About Leah

Leah Kresge

Leah Kresge

Director of Education for Congregation Beth Israel in Bangor, Maine, special educator and former school board member, mother to Amelia and Nezzie.

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