Improving Physical Security at Synagogues through Educating Stakeholders

By Geoff Terman, Edited by Adam Lammon

Since 2005 there have been 42 separate attacks against people in or adjacent to houses of worship in the U.S., resulting in 137 casualties.  Considering that America currently has about 345,000 houses of worship with nearly 150 million congregants from 230 diverse denominations, we must establish a ubiquitous security culture.

People wishing to do harm to large gatherings of the faithful need not look further than our local places of worship.  Religious institutions are generally soft targets for several reasons: open access to services and vehicles, limited security, and an awareness among nefarious actors that they generally lack comprehensive planning to mitigate threats.  Therefore, the key is to harden the structure, plan for contingencies, improve cyber security measures, and buy space and time for congregants until law enforcement arrives to mollify the threat.

The knowledge to improve lax security is available, but unfortunately, it is not collated for easy use.  Consequently, buy-in and utilization of all-inclusive security planning, training, and implementation in houses of worship is the exception rather than the norm.  If the first catalyst is a knowledge gap, the second is congregant and leadership complacency, likely due to the relative comfort and freedoms we enjoy in the U.S.  Have you ever heard someone say, “this is a house of G-D” or “G-D will watch over us”?  Since the threat is real, readiness is an imperative.  To improve security, a paradigm shift needs to occur through education imparted on the leadership of synagogues as well as their congregants.

Through education, we must communicate a better understanding of historic incidents, current events, and predictive analysis of what the future holds.  Furthermore, we must inculcate an understanding of how to conduct a security assessment, scenario based immediate actions, and engender a mindful community of interest. Once collectively understood, these elements will reveal
shortcomings and empower decision makers to implement a deliberate layered defense and create emergency management plans. Through this methodology, the knowledge gap will effectively contract and our security posture will improve.

We are not alone in this endeavor because as Americans, we have a national community of interest. We can learn from the best practices of other religious institutions and government programs and local law enforcement can help us better understand the threats and create a tailored plan. We must be prepared for the chance that malignant actors will increase their direct actions against soft targets in the U.S. just as they have recently in Europe.  Are we ready for that?

The existence of biblical and constitutional mandates for religious defense should compel us to plan towards threat mitigation.  As codified in the First Amendment, religion is a right of all citizens, but we know that freedom is not necessarily free.  The Jewish faith has been on the receiving end of torturous endeavors since the beginning of recorded history.  As scholar David Kopel wrote in his 2004 paper, “The Torah and Self-Defense,” both Mosaic law and the Jewish exodus from Egypt have illustrated that “people must use every practical option, including self-defense, before expecting a miracle.”  We must take the initiative to protect our communities because we could all be potential targets.

Let’s start by understanding the “five W’s” of security planning:

  1. Who and where is the threat?
  2. What is the vulnerability the adversary will attempt to exploit?
  3. Who is on the team that will counter the threat?
  4. What will the team implement to undermine their attempts?
  5. When has this occurred in the past and when could it occur in the future?

Finally, ask yourself two questions:

  1. Is the threat to our congregants real and exigent in nature?
  2. Is my house of worship doing everything possible to protect ourselves from people wishing to do harm?

Volume 71. Number 2. Summer 2017

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