Synagogues Prepare for High Holidays Amid Rising Threats: A Comprehensive Security Outlook
Edited by: Fern Sidman
As the High Holidays approach, synagogues across the United States are once again faced with the disturbing reality of rising anti-Semitism and a recent wave of fake bomb threats. While these threats have not deterred congregations from their religious practices, they have sparked a renewed emphasis on security measures, as was recently reported by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Rabbi Mara Nathan of San Antonio’s Temple Beth-El, a Reform congregation, reflects a common sentiment among synagogue leaders, according to comments she made to the JTA. She acknowledged that the recent surge in fake bomb threats has heightened awareness, but it has not fundamentally changed the way they worship.
“I think we’re on high alert,” said Nathan, the senior rabbi at San Antonio’s Temple Beth-El, a Reform congregation, “maybe a little more than usual.”
The JTA also reported that synagogues have long recognized the importance of security and have established comprehensive measures to ensure the safety of their congregants.
These measures encompass a wide range of precautions, from bomb-sniffing dogs and security checks for attendees to close coordination with local law enforcement and the FBI, as was noted in the JTA report. While synagogues remain vigilant, the recent wave of threats has understandably elevated emotions within the Jewish community. It is a stark reminder of the need for constant readiness in the face of potential threats.
Evan Bernstein, CEO of the Community Security Service, a group that trains volunteers to patrol synagogues, emphasized the necessity of taking all threats seriously, according to the JTA report. He pointed out that the prevalence of false bomb threats can lead to complacency, potentially causing a delayed response if a genuine threat arises. The JTA also reported that the unpredictable nature of these incidents requires synagogues to remain on high alert, even when faced with multiple false alarms.
“Law enforcement and the synagogues have to respond to it because you don’t ever know when it’s actually going to be the real thing,” Bernstein said, as was reported by the JTA. “When multiple things like this happen, people become numb and maybe won’t respond in the same way if, God forbid, something is legitimate.”
A recent briefing on Capitol Hill focused on securing Jewish institutions during the High Holidays highlighted the disruptive impact of these false bomb threats. The JTA reported that security consultants at the briefing predicted that extremists continue to employ this tactic due to its effectiveness in causing significant disruption with minimal effort.
Michael Masters, CEO of the Secure Community Network, noted that these threats are designed to incite fear and confusion.
“The increase in the bomb threats and the swatting incidents are designed to get a law enforcement response,” Masters told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, using a term that refers to making prank calls in order to generate a police response. “They’re designed to create fear, they’re designed to create confusion.”
The Secure Community Network, in collaboration with the Jewish Federations of North America, organized the briefing, where they highlighted that livestreamed services have become a particular target, the JTA reported. Kerry Sleeper, a former FBI assistant director advising the group, described a recent incident in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where extremists specifically targeted a livestreamed service to witness the police response during a bomb threat.
“They actually targeted a livestreaming of the service so that they can witness the police coming in and disrupting the service during this swatting session,” said Kerry Sleeper, referring to a bomb threat during services in July at Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Extremists hope to achieve a long-term goal of inhibiting Jewish expression by instilling fear and insecurity. The JTA also reported that synagogue leaders understand the gravity of this threat and the impact it can have on congregants’ sense of safety. The question arises: Will individuals feel comfortable attending a house of worship after a bomb threat or threat of violence?
To address these concerns, Masters suggested that synagogues review and refine their security procedures before the High Holidays, as was reported by the JTA. Key steps include establishing contact with local law enforcement, ensuring an orderly evacuation plan is in place, and confirming that the police have designated officials to report on the situation, as was noted in the report. Proactive engagement with law enforcement is vital to minimize panic and ensure a coordinated response.
The briefing also emphasized the need for increased federal grants to protect religious institutions, including synagogues. According to the JTA report, the existing program, which provides funding for security measures, has grown exponentially in recent years in response to rising threats. Efforts are underway to boost funding from $250 million to $360 million, reflecting the urgency of the situation.
Eric Fingerhut, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, stressed the importance of these funds, describing them as indispensable for the physical security of places of worship across the country, as was reported by the JTA. Jewish federations have already invested substantial sums to enhance security for local institutions, underlining the community’s commitment to safeguarding its members.
“It is truly indispensable to the physical security of churches, synagogues, mosques, and all other faith based places of gatherings across the country,” Fingerhut said at the briefing, according to the JTA report. “There’s not a security camera or secure door that isn’t in some way costly and needing the help and support of these resources.”
Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, expressed the necessity of taking comprehensive action to reduce the risk of harm to Jewish communities. The JTA said that the threat landscape necessitates a multifaceted approach, including enhanced preparedness, increased funding, and ongoing collaboration with law enforcement.
Murphy said the briefing exhibited “the panoply of efforts we need to undertake in order to decrease the risk of physical harm to those who are in Jewish communities, for those who are showing up in synagogues, Jewish day schools,” as noted in the JTA report.
In addition to increased preparedness, synagogues in some regions are taking further steps to bolster security. In New York City, the JTA report said that the Community Security Initiative is funding the purchase of patrol cars and resources for Jewish civilian security patrol groups operating in Orthodox neighborhoods.. These efforts are in response to concerns about safety in areas where street-level incidents have raised security concerns.
The wave of fake bomb threats has resonated throughout the country, prompting synagogues to strengthen their security measures and community relationships. Synagogues like the Chicago Loop Synagogue have maintained a close rapport with local law enforcement and implemented additional security measures, such as metal detectors, in response to the rising tide of anti-Semitism, as was noted in the JTA report.
In these challenging times, synagogues remain steadfast in their commitment to worship and community. They are determined to ensure that congregants can observe the High Holidays with a sense of safety and security. While the threat of false bomb threats persists, the Jewish community’s resilience and preparedness continue to shine as beacons of hope amid adversity.