Attacks at places of worship and the security measures put in place to thwart them are still a relatively new concept in the US. This phenomenon is on the rise and has drastically changed the status quo. Are we as American Jews approaching this in the right manner? Perhaps we should learn from countries with active shooters for over half a century, precisely Israel. This is an op-ed article where I address key issues I have noted in my personal experience providing security to Jewish communities. I address this article to both congregants and leaders alike, as I believe that they share a mutual responsibility in the safeguarding of their communities.
My background in compound security started a decade ago, ironically in the opposite manner. In the IDF unit I served in, my team and I trained to attack facilities, but not until we gathered intelligence in the hours or days before attacking it. It is there that I first learned the vulnerabilities present in every facility; no matter how secure it was originally designed to be. Most of the vast places of worship in the western world were built decades ago, without bearing any element of security in mind. After all, temples are primarily designed to be aesthetically pleasing and welcoming to the congregants it serves. Typically, most of these facilities contain large windows throughout, with various entries all-leading to a common area. These common areas more often than not are packed to the brim with people focused in prayer, rendering these individuals more likely to be unaware of imminent threats.
It doesn’t take much to understand that this can be catastrophic from a security standpoint. That said, I would like to bring some core issues to attention. We can all agree that the pacifistic days are over, and no religion or place of worship is free of threat. Generally speaking, congregation leaders have internalized this and have seemingly responded in one way or another. After seeing various methods implemented, I’ve come to question their motive and utilization at times.
Actualization and efficiency:
In the military there was two ways to do things: to actually do them, or too sign something off as if it was done, merely to renounce responsibility. The latter, leads to an operational issues, which is true in the civilian life as well. Its unfortunate, but too many of the security measures I’ve seen enacted, have been done so haphazardly. Perhaps to calm congregants, or relieve somewhere up the chain of command his/her responsibility. This creates a façade of actual security and does not actually resolve any underlying security threats. An example of this would be a facility that I saw who placed cameras without any relevant form of access control. Was this so they can see their own congregants being maimed post fact?
Last year I was fortunate to work for one of the largest Jewish American NGOs where I was part of a team of individuals, all from different sectors of the Israeli security apparatus. We had common language and understanding and trained together like a well- oiled machine. Access control, mail, vendors, hostage scenarios, suspicious objects, and active shooter scenarios, were all accounted for amongst various other operational concerns. I understand this isn’t always the ability of your everyday local temple yet this ‘elite’ security and mindset can and should take place in many other aspects of the American religious societies. The Department Of Defense is generous with its security, grants. It is upon the congregants to scrutinize where the money ends up, and those tasked with it ought to utilize it wisely.
After the Pittsburg shooting I was visited Maryland, and sat in on a local congregations ‘urgent security meeting’. The congregants at the meeting, (many of whom were understandably hysterical about the recent events) demanded to all know what they could do regarding the issue. The congregants tasked a young board member with no prior experience in security and many different suggestions were mentioned. Most of the opinions revolved around law enforcement, and supplementing additional funds for more law enforcement. In fact when the local police representative stepped in the room to join the meeting, the people breathed sighs of relief and told the officer how relived they were to have him there. It was concluded that the individuals should bake cookies for the law enforcement and be extra friendly to them, so that they would be around more often.
I for one was appalled at the security measures in place: or more precisely the lack thereof. Multiple open entryways, and a three-foot tall gate around half of the perimeter, some cameras some lights. This was after receiving thousands in D.O.D. grants. Take note: the responsibility of the safety of your congregation is on both the congregants and on those they entrust to handle it. Congregants should ensure that qualified individuals are hired even if that means spending and paying the extra dollar. And no, by that I don’t exclusively mean an off duty police officer.
The Jewish community has the luxury of having many individuals in their communities who served in various elite units of the IDF and should utilize this resource.
Congregants should join arms to assist those tasked with securing the complex in identification of individuals, vehicles, and objects. Pluralistic ignorance is a huge factor related to security flaws. Be involved and demand answers. If you see something amiss in the way your temple handles it’s security fund, or a bulky briefcase lying near the door; say something. Never assume someone else in the congregation will take care of anything. You are the solution.
I take a few issues with this, and would like to enlighten you on my thoughts. Law enforcement, are meant to do just that: enforce the law. Yes it’s illegal to walk into a place of worship and spray people with bullets. However in most case scenarios, these individuals are checking your vehicle registration, or attending disturbances and are somewhat useless shall an attack occur. This can be seen in the Pittsburg scenario as even after multiple units arrived were stating over the radio that they were pinned down and couldn’t do anything. Police are great when they fire first, since that is the position that they initiate and are confident in. Once a crazed aggressor walks in with no intent to come out alive; they the law enforcement lack the experience and training to counter- combat, flank, advance and take control of the scenario.
The best offence in this type of security is in fact; defense. Any scenario we enacted at the NGO or in other facilities, whereas a situation occurred that the police were called; we failed our mission. Law enforcement was the last resort, and should remain that way. If you’re calling them, you most likely need to contact the Chevra Kadisha as well. Shocker; I know, but let that settle in, and allow me elaborate. Many agency policies dictate the need to wait for a specialized takeover team, which can take even longer to respond. Attacks occur in the matter of seconds and if their not stopped before they start, casualties are guaranteed in spite of police/armed presence. In dense crowds and extreme stress, responding law enforcement agencies are very likely to maim innocent people while subduing an attacker.
The obsessive over reliance on law enforcement is concerning to say the least, and shouldn’t be the only means of the security in place by any account. In fact, it is one of the far less important things in the components of a correctly secured facility. A drastic mindset change is needed in regards to this. There is a visual deterrent aspect police provide with their vehicles and flashing lights, which is correlated to a reduction in crime. However, these phenomenon’s of crazed individuals who brazenly commit these heinous acts of terror are a different breed; this is not petty crime.
The mass hysteria:
Terror by definition is meant to do just that: create an environment of extreme fear. The submission to this fear is a win for terror, one that we cannot afford. The mass environment of hysteria before an event could contribute to individuals ‘freezing up’ in an actual scenario, and remaining in harms way without doing anything to put an end to the violence. While fear should be addressed, it isn’t substantially related to security and should be dealt with separately. The same goes for fire drills, petty crime, greeting people, and liability concerns. Traditionally American security incorporates these notions and tasks the security team with it. This is a distraction and has no tactical relevance to the operational procedures, in most scenarios. I personally found that those tasked with securing a facility, focus more on calming their congregants and enacting things for that matter more than actually resolving underlying critical tactical issues.
Fight or flight?
Countries like Israel and Brazil have overcome this fear to an extent and evolved into what is a daily reality. This is evident in Israel with terror attacks, and Brazil with regards to armed robbery. In Israel for example, you’ll find scenarios where groups of people chased a lone wolf attacker and neutralized him with a sewing machine, mops and umbrellas. The Brazilians usually resort to flip-flops and take it from there. I’m not advocating for violence, but in active attack scenarios where the attacker is already shooting and or stabbing: no options should be off the table. In fact, the very table itself is a weapon, as are the chairs. Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 attacked a place of worship spraying bullets into dozens, was neutralized with fire extinguishers. Those are located everywhere and a great way to stun and overcome someone by either spraying, to temporarily incapacitate or by using blunt force.
The aforementioned statements should be differentiated from a hostage situation where negotiations can still be made and the attackers aren’t utilizing their full lethal capabilities at the particular moment. But when and if they do – do what you must to ensure it ends. Especially if you’re able bodied and you’re positioned to do so. If all you can do is save yourself and flee, than do just that. It appears that individuals here and security protocols are still based on the fear of liability issues as well as fear itself, leading most individuals to naturally flee from attacks, many getting shot in the back and trampling one another in the process.
Our members are armed:
If there is ability for your congregation to self-arm, do so. However, train regularly and have a calculated, coordinated plan as not to cause harm to one another. Visible security caps or items to place on ones person should always be on you with weaponry, so as not to be mistaken for an aggressor when law enforcement arrive. After serving on a hostage takeover team for a good few years, I will say that, coordinated counter terror efforts to combat a active situation with multiple attackers and congregants are extremely complex and take years of skill and constant retraining to execute properly.
The ease of coming and going is something we as humans embrace; understandably we value freedom. Stricter security measures in place ultimately challenge these freedoms, and people must understand the importance and devote patience to the system; given the reality and current events. In Israel this is understood and I find that Americans are more reluctant to accept any form of inspection of any kind, or generally anything that impedes them in any manner. Arguably, this is also because security in Israel, especially for sensitive institutions are led by well educated, able bodied men; all with backgrounds in various special force units in the IDF. Whereas individuals’ synagogues are hiring here, are apparently gunning down people who come to take pictures, and don’t necessarily have the stigma of being intelligent capable individuals.
Who are you hiring?
Ultimately whoever is tasked with being operationally in control of a possible terror scenario at your temple and initially setting up a security plan should have deep- rooted understanding of counter terror measures, experience in combat and institutional security. I’ve seen one to many individuals offering security expertise in particular for synagogues, without proper, if any credentials. Hatzolah members, Avrechim, and Rabbis organizing community and synagogue watch groups are great. But these individuals and their cohorts should merely assist those tasked with enforcing security primarily in identification of people, vehicles and objects. Have someone who’s qualified come out and survey you’re premises, and write up a plan. Always remain proactive.
About the author:
Sol Hersh Has served in a special force unit tasked with counter terror and reconnaissance in the IDF. He has spent the past decade providing security and consulting to VIP’s, events, and facilities in both the US and Israel. He may be reached at [email protected]
NOTE: The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of YWN.
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