If you had told a young Evan Bernstein that he would be a leader in Jewish communal affairs, he probably would have laughed and said, “There is no way.” But life, as everyone well knows, doesn’t go as planned. And in Bernstein’s case, it certainly didn’t.
“I grew up in East Lyme, Connecticut, in a very non-Jewish environment,” he said, noting that he attended the local public school and didn’t even go to Hebrew school. “Our shul, Temple Beth Shalom, was a 30-minute drive, and we only really went on holidays. There were a handful of Jews in my town, and all of my closest friends were not Jewish.”
Today, the 45-year-old is firmly enmeshed in the Jewish community, particularly when it comes to issues of anti-Semitism and security. He recently left a job at the Anti-Defamation League to serve as the new chief executive officer at the Community Security Service, which trains Jewish volunteers to ensure the safety and security of Jewish organizations. Founded in 2007, CSS has trained 4,700 volunteers nationwide and is operating in 100 synagogues; those are numbers that Bernstein, who lives in the New York area, plans to grow.
“We as a community need to take security more seriously, and we need to involve Jews as part of the solution as they have for 50 years in communities around the globe,” said Bernstein. In Europe, in South Africa, in Australia, they have led the way with security of their own with organizations like Community Security Trust in the United Kingdom. They don’t rely first on the police or private security groups. It’s only in America, where since the Holocaust we have relied on the police to protect us.”
The need for increased security is acute right now. According to the annual ADL audit of anti-Semitic attacks, 2019 was a recording-setting year for all the wrong reasons. Among the 2,100 reported incidents were three deadly attacks: a shooting at the Chabad of Poway, California, in April; a shooting in December at a kosher market in Jersey City, New Jersey; and a machete attack at the end of that same month — on the last night of Hanukkah, of all times —at a synagogue in Monsey, New York.
And while the headlines may not reflect it, the threat against Jews continues to grow, even and maybe especially during the global coronavirus pandemic.
“I don’t think corona cured anti-Semitism,” said Bernstein, “and I don’t think it cured what we saw over the last four years — the growth in anti-Semitism and the record number of incidents. People are naive to think that it disappeared.”
‘That image is seared into my brain’
In fact, he has firsthand experience: Five years ago, while working at the ADL, he got his first serious death threat.
“That person is in jail, but it was a seminal moment for me before the [recent] rise of anti-Semitism,” he said, adding that he had to have security cameras installed in his home and arrange for the local police to drive-by regularly. The hardest thing, though, was explaining it to his wife and young children.
But it isn’t just about personal threats. It’s the communal ones as well that worry him, especially the deadly attacks in Jersey City and Monsey.
Those incidents, he said, shook him to the core.
“My life was altered after being on the ground for the active shooter in Jersey City and being there,” he said, with law enforcement and with parents from the Catholic school across the street and the yeshivah adjacent to the kosher grocery.
The next morning, he attended prayers at the synagogue that shares a wall with the market. Also, there were Israeli Consul General of Israel in New York Dani Dayan and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy. As they recited the Mourner’s Kaddish, recalled Bernstein, “I looked down and saw shell casings and bullet holes. There was a mop in front of me, and it had a bullet hole in it. That image is seared into my brain.”
Days later, he described, “I was in Monsey after the stabbing. I was there before the FBI was even on the scene. Being there for two of the four attacks in real-time” — the 2018 murder of 11 Jewish worshippers at the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha synagogue in Pittsburgh is included in that count, “changed me as a person. So when I got the call that CSS was interested in me being involved with the group, I was very interested because I saw how important our security is.”
What sets CSS apart from other Jewish organizations, said Bernstein, is that it relies primarily on volunteers who take its in-class security and safety training, and then use what they have learned to help their own communities.
“We train our volunteers at a very high level,” he said. “I’m going through the training right now through social distancing. It’s been incredible — the training, the theories and the best practices in security. It’s been inspiring to talk to our volunteers, who are just amazing. We have regional leaders across the country, and this is like a part-time job for them, even though they are volunteers.”
‘My world revolves around the Jewish community’
His goal, however, is to encourage more people to step up.
To that end, he and his very small staff — CSS has only a handful of employees — are working to create an entry point for people who aren’t ready to tackle full training, but would benefit from security training. He also wants to have re-certification requirements as they scale the training and professionalism in the coming years. Additionally, Bernstein plans to increase outreach to more synagogues and communities and get them involved — whether it’s a congregation that meets several times a day or one that has services only on holidays.
One other step he’d like to pursue is encouraging more young people, particularly those on college campuses, to join up. Bernstein hopes that if they start training and volunteering while they are in school, they will continue to do so when they are older and raising a family.
While his new focus at CSS will be reaching people and communities on a micro-level, the macro is still vitally important. He said it is important to strengthen CSS’s relationships with other Jewish communal security agencies, including the national Secure Community Network and the New York-based Community Security Initiative.
Reflecting back on the roads he’s taken, said Bernstein, “life will take you in many direction that you can never predict. Now I am observant and my kids are in yeshivah, and my world revolves around the Jewish community.” JN