Op-Ed: Community security is everyone’s responsibility


NEW YORK (JTA) — The recent attacks against Israeli diplomats abroad, which are suspected to have been carried out by Iran or its proxies, and the recent series of high-profile anti-Semitic incidents in the United States have raised new concerns about the safety and security of American Jewish communities.

The sad reality is that we are a potential target of terrorists and haters.  But this does not mean that we need to change our level of religious involvement or activities. It is possible to make our institutions safer and more secure while still maintaining a welcoming approach for our community, friends and neighbors.

As a leader in providing community guidance on institutional security, the Anti-Defamation League has worked closely over the years with local federations, synagogues, schools and law enforcement in an effort to encourage them to take a holistic approach to security awareness.

Here is some of the practical advice we have given communities to help them develop and execute a comprehensive security plan.

Security, first and foremost, is about having a heightened awareness of your surroundings.  Security should not only be the responsibility of an executive director, a religious school principal, a camp director or a rabbi. All staff and leadership at Jewish communal organizations should have regular training on institutional security.

Everyone who uses a Jewish facility should ask questions about security, should know what to do in an emergency, and should observe and report things or people that seem odd or out of place.  This includes paying attention to details — if you see someone acting strangely, note their physical appearance and what they are wearing.  If it is a vehicle that seems out of place, note the type, the color and the license plate.

People sometimes ask how to identify suspicious behavior that could be a threat.  The most important thing is to trust your instincts when something or someone’s behavior strikes you as unusual or suspicious.

For example, if someone is asking questions about a security system or security procedures, your antennae should go up.  The same is true if you see a stranger taking pictures inside or outside of a Jewish institution. If the person gets defensive or uncooperative when asked what they are doing, notify the staff immediately, so that they may notify law enforcement. Do not explain away unusual behavior. It is law enforcement’s job to filter through information and make threat assessments.

Jewish communal staff should ensure that their institution has established relationships with law enforcement officials and other first responders entrusted with protecting the community.  All institutions should invite members of their local police and fire departments to visit their building.  Offer them a tour or share an events calendar with them, so they are aware of Jewish holidays or occasions that may attract a large number of people.

Relationships are critical. Jewish institutions are always better off when the first call to the local police department is not an emergency 911 call.  

There is a place for security equipment, but vigilance about security awareness can be more valuable than the most expensive equipment. 

Jewish facilities can have the highest quality security cameras, special locks, buzzers and warning systems at the front entrance, but if someone has propped a back door open because the social hall or the gym is hot, all the high-tech equipment in the world won’t do much good.

The bottom line is that we can all be vigilant about security and still enjoy everything our synagogues, federations, community centers and other institutions have to offer.

(Elise Jarvis is the Anti-Defamation League’s communal security coordinator.)

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