The program is designed to strengthen existing security protocols by teaching members of the community how to increase awareness and identify potential threats.
With antisemitism on the rise across the country, ensuring the safety of High Holiday worshipers is both critical and challenging. As part of an ongoing effort to meet this vital need, the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit hosted a pilot training program presented by CARE (Community Awareness and Resilience Education), an Israeli-based organization.
Over four days in August, a team of Israeli security and risk-assessment management experts held training and information sessions for local synagogue leaders, Jewish professionals and security volunteers from various congregations. The program is designed to strengthen existing security protocols by teaching members of the community how to increase awareness and identify potential threats.
Gary Sikorski, director of community-wide security at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, believes community involvement serves as a “force multiplier” for professional security personnel and local law enforcement.
“It’s incumbent upon all of us to be alert,” he said. “We want our staff as well as other professionals and volunteers to be prepared for any potential threats.”
The CARE initiative is supported by the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs and private philanthropy in collaboration with the Jewish Federations of North America and the Security Community Network (SCN). While it has been effectively used in several other countries, this was the first training conducted in the United States.
“The timing is very good in light of the increase in antisemitic rhetoric and hate crimes we’re seeing,” Sikorski said.
The training sessions, which took place at Farber Hebrew Day School, Congregation Shaarey Zedek, Adat Shalom Synagogue and the Jewish Community Center, covered topics that included how to identify suspicious people and objects, monitoring access to synagogues, and how security volunteers and congregants can help.
“The primary goal of our training is to prevent an attack,” said Avidov Bernstein, executive director of CARE. “It can be something as simple as a locked door, anything that makes it difficult for an attacker.”
According to CARE security trainer Doron Shalev, the High Holidays are particularly risky because most synagogues are at full capacity, and the crowds often include out-of-town visitors and others who do not attend services regularly. Another security challenge is that people tend to socialize outdoors and then return to the sanctuary during longer services.
Perpetrating a violent attack during Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur may motivate a terrorist with an antisemitic agenda who views the holidays as symbolic and desires the extensive publicity that will undoubtedly follow.
“The goal of a terrorist or attacker is to create fear and cause the maximum number of casualties,” Shalev said. “In a large synagogue it’s hard for [security] people to know who belongs. Access control is harder, and it’s more difficult to protect people outside.”
Shalev described three categories of suspicious persons and the characteristics associated with each:
• The information gatherer: This person is there to do surveillance for a future attack. These individuals may exhibit nervous behaviors such as fidgeting and looking around frequently. In addition to surveying entrances and other locations within the building, they may spend an unusual amount of time in the parking lot and pretend to be on the phone if someone approaches.
• The attacker(s): These individuals are there to execute an actual attack. They behave nervously and may be carrying a backpack or bag or wearing a coat or jacket in warm weather to conceal a weapon.
• The suicide bomber: This person will usually be wearing a coat or jacket to hide an explosive device but is otherwise surprisingly calm and focused.
Suspicious objects may include unattended backpacks, satchels, purses or even paper or plastic grocery bags.
According to CARE protocol, congregants or security volunteers who see a suspicious person or object should avoid any direct confrontation and immediately report the situation to professional security personnel or someone in authority. Under no circumstances should a “civilian” approach a stranger or pick up a questionable item.
Shalev believes creating and maintaining a safe environment requires three main components: professional security personnel, physical deterrents such as gates, cameras and alarm systems, and the awareness of the people in the community. He recommends applying these criteria to non-religious settings such as schools, where everyone should be encouraged to adopt a security mindset.
“Parents of school-age kids need to take responsibility and teach their kids to be more aware,” he said.
Security volunteers from the community provide an added level of protection because they are familiar with many of the congregants and can identify suspicious individuals before they enter the building.
“When armed professionals are your only form of security, it can turn into a gunfight where each side has a 50/50 chance of winning,” Sikorski said. “A gun can be a good resource in the right situation, but it’s better to prevent a showdown with effective access control and layered security.”
Regarding firearms, Michigan law allows a synagogue board member to grant permission for a congregant to carry a gun into the sanctuary. In these instances, synagogues use a selective process that requires the person to be trained and vetted, according to Joey Selesny, former chair of the security committee at Young Israel of Southfield and a member of Federation’s security committee.
Selesny believes there are readily available alternatives to firearms that can be used to thwart an attacker.
“There are chairs and books throughout the room — throw them,” he said, adding that stringent access control, including questioning unknown people, is also crucial.
Unfortunately, there are situations where a terrorist prevails despite the utmost security protocols. To mitigate harm, CARE consultants encourage synagogues to create a safe area where congregants can gather in the event of an attack or active shooting incident. The preferred option is a dedicated room without windows, equipped with water, flashlights, first aid kit, radios and a landline phone.
In addition to communal safety education and training, CARE consultants, in partnership with the Israel Trauma Coalition, help communities strengthen psychological resilience in the aftermath of an attack.
“We provide crisis management and teach people how to deal with trauma,” said Bernstein. “We advise them on what to do two minutes after an attack, two hours after that and then two days, two weeks and even months and years later.”
During their stay, the CARE consultants conducted security assessments of some local synagogues and recommended ways to enhance the measures already in place.
“We’re always looking for new ways to keep people safe, so we were glad to learn about the best ways to handle difficult situations,” said Bob Rich, executive director of Congregation Shaarey Zedek.