In the last 12 months, the American Jewish community has faced rising anti-Semitism and two synagogue shootings — one of which left one person dead and the other 11.
Now, Jewish communities are looking at security and reevaluating emergency procedures — especially with the High Holidays approaching.
The Valley of the Sun JCC’s director of security, James Wasson, has been spending his time training Phoenix synagogues to prepare for any scenario.
“With all the events that occurred in the past 12 months, since the last High Holidays, we have increased our security capabilities for synagogues,” Wasson said. “We’re providing additional training to rabbis and personnel at synagogues and added some tools to our toolbox to prepare better.”
In addition to acting as The J's director of security, Wasson is the CEO and founder of Antebellum Protection LLC. Through Antebellum’s training services, many synagogues have added more tools to their emergency toolbox.
Some of Antebellum’s preparation measures include emergency medical training, evacuation drills and security planning. Wasson — a former police lieutenant for the Scottsdale Police Department — said his main concern is that people improve their situational awareness.
“Everybody’s part of a security team at every synagogue,” Wasson said. “I always ask how many people are on a security team and I’ll see one or two hands pop up, and then I’ll say, ‘If there are 200 people sitting in this room, then you have 200 people on your security team.’”
After walking through multiple scenarios, Wasson has the synagogue he’s training practice evacuation plans. Although he feels it’s a shame that these security procedures have to be taken so seriously, he said that at the end of the day it makes them more prepared.
Rabbi Jeremy Schneider of Temple Kol Ami said that the High Holiday services will be held at a different location than their synagogue this year. But, the congregation has been working closely with Wasson on security matters.
“For our location, we have been training with Antebellum and we have an in-house security committee,” Schneider said. “We have trained our religious school and early childhood teachers and staff on how to deal with emergency situations as well as held an orientation for our religious school parents. We even held training on a Friday night recently for our members to be aware of what to do in an emergency situation, and we have trained in Stop the Bleed procedures.”
Stop the Bleed is a national awareness campaign to encourage bystanders to become trained, equipped and empowered to help in a bleeding emergency before professional help arrives.
The vice chair of the Phoenix police department’s Jewish advisory board, Alan Zeichick, has also been working with synagogues to help their security teams better prepare for the upcoming High Holidays. During his visits, he presents a list of ideas to encourage better communication.
“It needs to be very clear to everyone who is doing what in terms of security and to make sure everyone knows what the processes are,” Zeichick said. “One of the things I like to say is, ‘Ninety-nine percent of all the problems is communication. The other one percent is communication, but you don’t realize it.’”
Zeichick and Wasson both said that everyone attending a High Holiday service should take note of potential suspicious activity.
“Don’t shrug anything off as a false alarm,” Zeichick said. “If something feels strange or unusual, tell security or the police and let them figure it out.”
The Arizona regional director of the ADL, Carlos Galindo-Elvira, said that ADL Arizona will be coordinating with local law enforcement and providing additional resources through an electronic newsletter prior to the High Holiday services.
“We encourage every Jewish institution to look at their security policies, practices and procedures,” Galindo-Elvira said. “ADL can provide additional resource information to assist with this process. We also urge a high level of vigilance every day, everywhere.”
Michael G. Masters, the national director and CEO of the Secure Community Network, the national homeland security initiative of The Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, says Jewish communities face a threat environment more complex than ever before in American history.SCN empowers Jewish communities to improve their security through better awareness, resilience and preparedness.
Masters noted that SCN’s most requested training is on situational awareness and detecting suspicious activity. Paying attention to surroundings can also improve safety in environments outside the synagogue or JCC as well, such as at the gas station or when crossing the street.
“People used to often ask, ‘Is this necessary? Why do I need this?’” Masters said. “Now, we see the vast majority of people asking, ‘What’s the best way to do it? How can we do this most effectively?’”
The importance of security in the Jewish community is about more than just making sure Jewish spaces are safe, Masters added. Security allows for the free practice of religion, for Jewish life to grow and flourish.
“Looking at the situation that we face as a community, whether it’s issues of identity or looking at my own kids who go to a Jewish day school, and recognizing the critical importance that, for all the decisions that we are able to make, that we have the luxury of making, about how we practice and the diversity of that practice or what it looks like for me versus somebody else, the one thing that shouldn’t be driving it, that should never be allowed to drive it, is someone else trying to instill fear and intimidation, to dictate who and how we are.”
SCN is hosting a national webinar on Sept. 16 at 1 p.m. about best practices for the High Holidays. The webinar is open to the public. To RSVP, email DutyDesk@SecureCommunityNetwork.org.
“Our greatest enemy in this is, I firmly believe, not Al Qaeda or ISIS or white supremacists or neo-Nazis, even an
active shooter, it’s our mentality, our own sense of ‘It can’t happen here’ that
prevents us from being proactive,” Masters said. “Certainly since Pittsburgh and Poway, we’ve seen a general shift in
mindset of let’s be prepared and let’s be
Additional reporting for this piece was contributed by by Selah Maya Zighelboim, digital editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, a JN-affiliated publication.