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‘Now it is an imperative:’ Synagogue hostage-taking prompts a hard look at security

Once the hostages at Beth Israel were safe, Jews turned their attention to every other synagogue — and Jewish community center, day school and camp.

Just how secure are they? And what should be done to make them safer?

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker greets well-wishers after a healing service at a local church Monday evening.

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker greets well-wishers after a healing service at a local church Monday evening. Photo by Arno Rosenfeld

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, the spiritual leader of the Texas synagogue, said he drew on security training from the FBI, the Secure Community Network and the Anti-Defamation League to free himself and his congregants on Saturday after an 11-hour standoff that began after he let a man into the synagogue and made him a cup of tea.

When the gunman grew belligerent, the rabbi threw a chair at him, distracting him enough to allow himself and the other hostages to flee. The gunman, Malik Faisal Akram, was then shot and killed by law enforcement.

Within days of the incident, officials from President Biden to the heads of major Jewish organizations recommitted themselves to the safety of the Jewish community. Jewish organizations developed new plans and accelerated those already in the works to reinforce security at Jewish institutions and to introduce it to those which have none.

And clergy and lay people alike are taking a new look at the equation that balances the need for security and the religious obligation to welcome the stranger.

“We all know too well the rise of antisemitism that we are seeing, not only in our country but in different parts of the world,” said Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, speaking to more than 1,200 synagogue leaders Tuesday on a Zoom call hosted by the Orthodox Union and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. “We need to ensure that our shuls, our schools and related places of assembly are protected.”

Mayorkas, who is Jewish, called for a boost in funding that helps synagogues and other nonprofit institutions pay for security. Asked how Akram had been let into the country, he replied that the matter was under investigation.

Secretary of Homeland Security nominee Alejandro Mayorkas

Secretary of Homeland Security nominee Alejandro Mayorkas on Nov. 24, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware By Mark Makela/Getty Images

Whether security is enhanced at individual Jewish institutions will depend partly on the availability of government dollars to enhance security, as well as the fundraising and training efforts of major Jewish organizations and religious movements and the leadership of each institution.

For those focused on better protecting themselves from antisemitic threats, one likely source of help will be the Jewish Federations of North America.

’Now it is an imperative’

The Federations, in the wake of the Beth Israel hostage-taking, has advanced the rollout of its security campaign, which aims to raise a total of $126 million to provide training, real-time intelligence and facility upgrades for synagogues, JCCs, camps and other Jewish institutions across the country over the next three years.

The campaign builds upon an initiative called the Secure Community Network that the Federations network and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations began in 2004.

Julie Platt, who chairs the new initiative — called LiveSecure — said roughly 50 community security initiatives already exist, leaving about two-thirds of the 146 Federation communities in North America uncovered. “We are aware of the fact that in every community there are organizations that have nothing,” Platt said. “In order to have flourishing Jewish communities, you need to feel safe,” she said.

“No one was paying proper attention before because we didn’t feel it was such an imperative. But now it is an imperative. Every Jewish summer camp and school. So a lot more has to be done,” she added.

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Michael G. Masters, CEO of the Secure Community Network, said his group had trained about 17,000 individuals in the last year, including Cytron-Walker and about two dozen members of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, where Saturday’s hostage-taking occurred. SCN training sessions can be in-person or virtual and typically last about 90 minutes, and are run by about 25 security professionals — Colleyville’s, for example, was led by a former member of the Israel Defense Forces and Memphis Police Department.

“What we are teaching is how to commit to action during these events and how to keep yourself safe and alive,” Masters said. “Our goal is to train to be safe, secure and empowered.

Platt, the JFNA leader, said the organization had hired someone to manage the expanded security initiative, and that local federations, not individual synagogues or other organizations, would be able apply for the funds. She said JFNA was two-thirds of the way toward its goal of raising $54 million, which would then be matched by local funding, and that the organization was also lobbying Congress to double its Nonprofit Security Grant Program to $360 million from $180 million.

The Orthodox Union has been lobbying for that increase since 2019. That group’s executive director, Nathan Diament, said he expected greater demand for the federal grants as a result of the Texas attack, and was gathering signatures from multiple faith communities for a new letter to Congress pushing for the additional funds.

“Sadly, everybody has been attacked, not only synagogues but churches and mosques,” Diament noted. “Other faith communities have become acutely sensitive to their own security concerns and have also been applying for these grants.”

Train every congregant?

The Secure Community Network is, meanwhile, offering a new training program designed to educate Jews on how to recognize and report suspicious behavior and criminal activity and develop self-defense strategies.

The program, called BeAware, is an interactive course that can be taught online or in-person. The group is hosting a virtual preview on Jan. 27 at 1 p.m.; participants can register here.

“We are encouraging our communities to take advantage of SCN and the training it offers,” said Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, CEO of both the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, noting that Cytron-Walker had emphasized that training’s efficacy.

Amy Asin, a vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said the leadership of “the vast majority” of the movement’s 850 synagogues in the U.S. and Canada have already attended SCN’s online training sessions and many have added measures like doors that automatically close and lock from the outside, panic buttons and alert systems, and ways to blast text-messages to all on-site. Asked about security training for congregants, Asin said there was some hesitation “because it triggers centuries of trauma we have in our community.”

“When we say we need active-shooter training and begin services by saying, ‘Please take note of the emergency exits,’ that triggers fear,” she explained. “We don’t want to think we are living in a world where you have to do those things. We want to gather and worship free from fear, but we have to put commonplace measures in place.”

But Masters, the head of the Secure Community Network, said “every member of the community needs to be trained.”

“We know there are 7.2 million Jews in the U.S. and for 17,000 to be trained last year is really very impressive, but it is not enough,” he said. “This is just like fire drills. We don’t say it is enough for the rabbi or teachers to be trained. This has to be comprehensive across the entire community.

“We don’t know when or where something is going to happen. Synagogues, JCCs, day schools,” he added. “We want to make sure we are teaching these things in a comprehensive manner.”

Merrick Garland’s shul

In the immediate aftermath of the hostage-taking, a remark made by the FBI agent in charge at the scene was anything but reassuring to Jewish listeners tuned into the press conference. While that agent said the FBI was working closely with the Federations and the Secure Community Network, he also said that the gunman’s motives were “not specifically related to the Jewish community.”

Many Jews took to Twitter, baffled that the FBI would dissociate the hostage-taking from antisemitism. The next day, the FBI backtracked, and federal officials have since underlined that the incident was an attack on Jews.

Speaking on the same call to synagogue leaders as Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas on Tuesday, Attorney General Merrick Garland said the hostage-taking was “rooted in antisemitism” and that the Department of Justice is investigating it as an act of terror.

Image by Wikimedia

If Jews had reason to doubt that their government was taking the attack seriously, Merrick and Mayorkas — both of whom are Jewish — offered reassurances. Both spoke as members of the president’s cabinet, but also as Jews.

“I did not have the chance to follow my annual ritual of planting a tree on Tu B’Shvat, ” Mayorkas said, speaking of the Jewish festival of trees, which began Sunday evening. “The events of this past Shabbos were all time consuming.”

“I know full well that this is every congregation’s worst fear,” Garland said, and referred to his own synagogue. “Mine has a police car stationed outside every important service. This is not the way it should have to be in America, but unfortunately it is the way.”

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