The High Holy Days present special challenges to security, said Michael Masters, national director and CEO of the Secure Community Network, the security arm of the Jewish Federations of North America.
Masters is reaching out – both to the more than 400 Jewish communities that don’t have dedicated security directors, and to the roughly 40, like Cleveland, that do – with a webinar Sept. 16 that touches on issues that Jews may want to keep in mind as the High Holy Days approach.
“An increasingly critical part of our mission is working in those areas of the country with those communities that do not have security directors to ensure that they have the support, resources, technical expertise and knowledge at their disposal to ensure that they have a level of preparedness and protection that any community deserves,” he told the Cleveland Jewish News on Sept. 5. “That’s really only possible through our collective system and working together.”
He said SCN divides the nation up into regional maps, “and we work within those regions to resource regional security directors and also work with communities and provide access to services that historically they have not had or that have been underserved.”
Masters stressed the need for constant, heightened situational awareness.
“Things we should be doing for the High Holidays we probably should be doing every day of the year,” Masters said. “But, because we have a larger population that is often less familiar with the facility, the High Holidays creates unique challenges for us.”
In addition, some congregations hold High Holy Day services in rented facilities where they don’t ordinarily meet, adding a layer of unfamiliarity, even among those who may be familiar with the usual worship space.
“It’s a lot of discreet messaging to get through,” he said.
Masters recommends that a community leader – the rabbi, executive director or synagogue president – open services with a briefing about the location of emergency exits, pointing out who the ushers and greeters are.
“That little mental flag in people’s minds that, hey, safety and security is actually something I need to think about and be aware of, so in the event something happens that we’re prepared to address it,” he said.
Masters said this year SCN is offering a number of guides and products, including one on low-cost security measures for Jewish facilities, one-page guides on what to do in specific types of events including fire, medical emergency or an active threat.
“I’d encourage people to be attentive to what’s around them,” he said. “Be aware of your surroundings and pay attention to suspicious people or objects. And if you see something, say something. Also do something. Take action. Report it, but also let people know that there’s something or someone suspicious.”
He recommends keeping security and safety in mind at all times.
“I think that’s just about being vigilant,” he said. “We have to remember it’s about being prepared and responsive to a variety of threats. It may not be just an anti-Semitic targeting of an individual for anti-Semitism. It can be everyday crime. When you’re walking, don’t be on your phone. Be attentive to your surroundings. Be attentive to other individuals. Pay attention to access control or suspicious packages. If they’re lying around, make sure they belong to someone. Report it.”
He encourages institutions to engage with local law enforcement and “to have a good plan in place.”
Masters said that the shootings at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh Oct. 27, 2018 and at Chabad of Poway in Poway, Calif., April 27, 2019 show the need and benefit of “scripting through” emergencies.
“We know that the majority of people do things by routine,” he said. “So the entrance where they came in is going to be the first one they go to try to get out, even if it’s circumstances they know it’s not the right exit to go out of.”
He recommends undergoing training.
“The meta lessons are that being mentally prepared for an event, thinking through your options, undergoing training, those can really not only increase your chance of survival but your sense of empowerment and resiliency,” he said. “And that’s important for us as a community. It’s part of why we spend so much time in synagogue in the month of Elul.”