Meet the volunteers who are training to protect synagogues in a post-Oct. 7 world


(New York Jewish Week) – As two guards walked out of their synagogue to greet a group of congregants on a Saturday morning, one spotted a college-age student walking by wearing a backpack and stopped to chat. 

Then a protest erupted on the sidewalk. “Free, free Palestine!” a handful of protesters shouted. Several of the congregants approached the protesters, shouting “Get out of here!” 

The two guards – a middle-aged woman and a younger man – stepped between the two groups to separate them, but matters began to escalate. The pro-Palestinian demonstrators hurled stones at the counter-protesters, then a knife-wielding attacker rushed toward the crowd and stabbed one of the guards. 

The other guard and several congregants tackled the assailant, disarmed him, and called police.

While this incident might seem plausible to many, it didn’t actually happen. It was a staged scenario at a retreat this week in Pennsylvania, meant to train volunteer synagogue guards to make decisions under pressure. The knife was rubber, the suspicious student and protesters were other guards-in-training, and the stones were balls of fabric. 

The annual gathering is run by the Community Security Service, which trains members of hundreds of synagogues to guard their congregations, and has taken place twice before. This year, following Oct. 7, CSS is placing more of a focus on countering anti-Israel and Islamist demonstrators, and on responding to protest and harassment in addition to violent attacks. The group has also seen significant growth in the past seven months. 

 “The anti-Israel protests have created additional layers of complexity,” Richard Priem, CSS’ interim director, told the New York Jewish Week, which was granted exclusive access to the three-day retreat. “Our volunteers need to adapt and be prepared to deal with intense situations that are not necessarily always a violent threat but more has to do with intimidation and harassment and making sure that they can still maintain access control, making sure that they can still secure Jewish life so everything continues.”

As law enforcement and Jewish groups have documented a spike in antisemitism since Oct. 7, CSS has seen demand for its services increase. Ahead of the Hamas attack, around 300 synagogues were part of the CSS network; now there are more than 400. The group is also expanding a program it runs that dispatches security volunteers to Jewish community events in the tri-state area, and plans on launching teams in Los Angeles and Miami in addition to the ones in New York City and Washington, D.C..

That follows an earlier jump after the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and violent attacks on Jewish institutions in 2019. In the past four years, CSS’s staff has grown from two to 18 and the number of volunteers from a few hundred to around 4,000. The organization is funded by donations, and in 2022, tax filings showed the New York City-based group had $5 million in revenue

Jonathan, 25, a volunteer from a Manhattan synagogue, said his community had started organizing security volunteers after Oct. 7 and joined CSS in January. The synagogue felt vulnerable after the Hamas invasion of Israel, he said. 

“We were discussing it for a while. It wasn’t until after Oct. 7 that enough people said, “OK, let’s make this happen,” said Jonathan, who gave only his first name per the policy of the retreat, which also kept names of synagogues off the record due to security concerns.

Many synagogues rely on private security or off-duty police officers to guard their entrances. Some rely on hired guards and volunteers. Jonathan said his synagogue chose to train its members in part because it was inspired by stories of civilian Israelis who saved others during Hamas’ invasion of Israel, which targeted communities that were largely surrounded by fences and guard posts. 

“Much of the Oct. 7 attack was against communities that were ‘secure,’” he said.

Some synagogues turn to volunteers because hiring security is too expensive and government security grants — which can be onerous to obtain — offer only limited funding for guards. 

CSS also makes the case that volunteers are familiar with the membership of their synagogue and its culture, so are more able to spot outsiders or suspicious behaviors. In New York, strict laws regulate police interactions with the public, such as laws barring any kind of profiling, rules that do not apply to volunteers. 

Jonathan, the volunteer from Manhattan, said the team at his synagogue had been working in shifts in recent months, with team members performing security sweeps and monitoring for threats inside and outside the building.

“I feel like it’s my responsibility, in that I shouldn’t have to outsource my security to other people,” he said. “Why should someone else have to step up to protect my synagogue and security?”

Around 75 volunteers came to the retreat from across the country — with around half coming from the tri-state area. The setting was a far cry from the city, though: It was held on the grounds of a Jewish center in verdant, rural Pennsylvania. A guard checked vehicles at the entrance and deer scrambled across the driveway just beyond the gate.

The group skewed middle-aged and older, male and Orthodox, and included doctors, lawyers and one former NFL Super Bowl champion. The synagogues represented ranged from Reconstructionist to Orthodox congregations.

CSS sends trainers to synagogues around the country to drill them in security protocol, but the retreat provided more advanced training to experienced guards and volunteers in leadership roles. Participants also heard from experts from Jewish communities abroad, in addition to officials from the Department of Homeland Security and former NYPD officers. 

Participants trained in security measures including sweeping a synagogue for threats, questioning suspicious individuals, the Israeli martial art krav maga and reacting to a thrown explosive. They also trained on how to lock down buildings and learned about tactics to counter aggressive protesters. 

“This is a higher-level, more experienced people, people with more potential. It helps grow the training capacity and capability,” said Michael, a volunteer and CSS team leader at a synagogue in Westchester who has 12 years of experience. Michael, attending the retreat for the third time, monitored his synagogue’s security cameras through an app on his phone while at the retreat, saying he had been on “constant alert” since Oct. 7.

Instructors traveled to the retreat from Jewish communities in the United Kingdom, Australia and South Africa, countries with smaller Jewish communities that have made use of a volunteer security model for decades

Those countries and U.S. cities have seen similar protests. Disruptive pro-Palestinian car convoys appeared in the United Kingdom, for example, and have also come to New York, Los Angeles, and other cities, while protest groups in the United States have posted “toolkits” online that foreign groups have access to. Other instructors were Israeli consultants based in the United States.

While protests in New York have not seen any deadly violence or severe beatings of Jews, like demonstrations during the 2021 Gaza war, they have still subjected some synagogue-goers to intimidation and harassment, sparking fears among congregants. Synagogues across the country have also been targeted with a rash of fake bomb threats. 

But despite the protests, deadly violence is still seen as more of a threat from the far-right, Priem said — echoing the longstanding assessments of watchdogs like the Anti-Defamation League, which partners with CSS. The Tree of Life shooter, for example, was a right-wing extremist motivated by the antisemitic “great replacement” conspiracy theory.

“The actual attacks, terror, there’s still more of those that have happened from the white supremacist angle,” Priem said, adding that the group has always kept threats from radical Islamists in mind, even if they’re not the focus.

“We’re not changing our core training,” he said, but have added additional layers to factor in anti-Israel protests, such as the scenario of a demonstration outside the synagogue.

“That scenario was an example of how the volunteers are trained in keeping both the congregants safe but also keeping counter-protesters separate,” Priem said. “It is not the interest of CSS that there’s escalation. Our goal is always to de-escalate and prevent.”

The program, and the partnerships between the different security groups, have notched several successes in recent years. In 2022, a CSS volunteer noticed a threatening post on social media. CSS relayed the threat to the Community Security Initiative, a New York City-based Jewish security agency, which sent the information to police, who made two arrests and found a knife, a handgun and a Nazi armband with the suspects. 

In 2021, volunteers in the Bronx pursued and snapped a photo of a suspect who had carried out a string of acts of vandalism against Jewish institutions in the area, leading to his arrest.

In December, in Washington, D.C., volunteer guards blocked an assailant who attempted to attack congregants with a foul-smelling spray outside a synagogue while shouting “Gas the Jews.”

During the scenario training, the volunteers prepared for similar situations. An Israeli consultant told them to be proactive while guarding their synagogues.

“You’re not standing like a mezuzah at the door,” the trainer said. “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. I don’t want to see people freezing.”

In one scenario, congregants filed out of the “synagogue” when a mock bomb landed nearby. In another, the guards locked down the synagogue as a mob of protesters banged on the building’s windows.

Another trainer, from South Africa, hid fake bombs in and around a building to train volunteers in how to systematically sweep a synagogue before services. “Everything past here is clean,” a volunteer said as she entered from a side room. “We’ve got a suspicious backpack over there,” another said.

During krav maga training on an outdoor basketball court, an Israeli instructor drilled participants on forming a “helmet” with their arms around their head to block strikes. The group practiced scenarios, including where to stand while another volunteer questions a suspicious person, what to do if someone throws a punch during questioning, and how to charge at someone who’s carrying a knife.

“It delivers a message to him,” the instructor said. “I’m no longer a victim, I’m willing to fight.”