An open letter to American Jewry: We need to be better caretakers for our own security

I write to you as we commemorate the two-year anniversaries this month of some of the most searing incidents inflicted on the American Jewish community in recent years: an attack on a kosher market in Jersey City, N.J., and the stabbing rampage at a rabbi’s private home in Monsey, N.Y. I was on the ground in the immediate aftermath of both nightmares and saw firsthand the consequence of vehement anti-Jewish hatred in America.

We are in the midst of what seems to be an intractable reality surrounding our safety and security. Despite the disturbing volume of incidents year after year, our community largely enjoys an uninterrupted livelihood that has afforded us an incredible opportunity to practice and celebrate our faith and honor our traditions. However, as head of a national organization mandated to protect you, and as we reflect on the anniversaries this month of the Jersey City and Monsey tragedies, I am delivering a stark message:

You need to take the risk of antisemitic threats more seriously.

Regardless of your standing in the community, whether you serve as an usher during Rosh Hashanah in a Reform synagogue in the suburbs, or as the executive director of a city-based Orthodox shul, we implore you to heed our call to help foster a much-needed culture shift around security awareness and preparation. Security is everyone’s responsibility.

It is also my responsibility to ensure that we are honest and transparent with you when it comes to the nature and scope of the threats that we collectively face. The sky is not falling and we — at The Community Security Service (CSS) — are incredibly fortunate to have support from numerous foundations, local federations and private donors who have contributed tremendously to improving our security. We are also excited about the progress made in establishing partnerships with like-minded organizations that seek to create an even bigger shield.

At the same time, our community across all denominations needs to adopt a higher level of seriousness on the ground — with more proactive gusto — when it comes to addressing our vulnerability, particularly as some of the most vicious antisemitic attacks in American-Jewish history, including Pittsburgh and Poway, that are still etched into our collective psyche. The indiscriminate series of incidents that struck communities from coast to coast during the Israel-Hamas conflict this past Spring prompted us as a volunteer led security organization to encourage a worldview shift on Jewish security.

You may be thinking: We have local police and we have private security. Why is there a need for more? Simply put, law enforcement and private security only represent a fraction of the necessary “layered” approach to fully protect our community. Jewish institutions that are working closely to establish volunteer security teams are significantly reducing their vulnerability and changing the trajectory of their safety outcomes. All programs and training that we provide are at no cost to institutions.

In assessing the vulnerability of the Jewish community, we can find a striking similarity in best practices to ensure our health and safety during the pandemic. When it comes to disrupting COVID, our public health experts unanimously advise a layered approach that includes the importance of masks, vaccination, social distancing and awareness of surroundings, which determines how we go about our lives safely. When it comes to protecting our institutions, we can look to those same best practices in fighting the Coronavirus to combating another virus — antisemitism — that has plagued us for far too long.

We have a fair amount of data about the roots of our insecurity. Antisemitic incidents remained at historically high levels in 2020, according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL)’s annual audit. The organization also found, in its latest poll following the latest Israel-Hamas conflict, that 40% of respondents felt more concerned about personal safety than before. The FBI’s latest report on hate crimes, once again, showed that in 2020, nearly 60% of all religiously motivated attacks targeted Jews and Jewish institutions. In Pew’s most recent study, three-quarters of American Jews responded that there is more antisemitism today than there was five years ago, with just over half of the respondents indicating that they feel personally less safe. The American Jewish Committee’s data also revealed that fear of anti-Jewish hatred caused 40% of Jews to change their behavior this past year. Hillel International, together with ADL, released a survey showing a third of Jewish students experienced antisemitism last year. As I stated when I took the helm to lead the Jewish community into a new era of empowerment around volunteer security, engaging students in understanding security to become more aware is key.

All of this data tells us that we must ramp up efforts to empower each other — regardless of affiliation — to become better caretakers for our security.

We are not harping on this data to scare you. We are not advising that you erect fortresses around your synagogues, to quarantine to avoid an attack, or train to achieve the highest level of Krav Maga self-defense. We are simply saying that there are basic measures your institution can take to improve security coupled with tangible opportunities to learn about how you can get involved in the safety of your own community. You are the eyes and ears on the ground. You know what is out of place. Your experience and knowledge of community, by default, already provides a sixth sense that law enforcement and private security can never possess. You, your friends, your neighbors can all play a huge part in the culture shift on security that we need.

Diaspora Jewry — most notably in Europe and Latin America — has given us countless examples of how they have lowered their risk, leading to safer environments. This year, in Marseille, France, a potential terror attack was stopped because locally trained security volunteers were able to mobilize quickly enough to recognize the nature of a threat and liaise immediately with law enforcement. Last year, in Halle, Germany, an attack was foiled because a synagogue prioritized access control and simply ensured its front doors were locked. And right here at home this past April in New York City, a perpetrator vandalized several Jewish institutions in the same neighborhood. Trained Bronx and Riverdale-based CSS volunteers subsequently identified the presence of the offender, helping to provide key information to the New York Police Department, leading to an arrest. The lesson learned is that a heightened and measured awareness of trained community members made a direct impact on the safety of this community.

Our plea to you is this: We want you to start thinking about security like nearly all Jewish communities around the world have for decades. The take home message is that when there is an across the board Jewish communal understanding that security is everyone’s responsibility, together with a willingness to put in place basic measures and commitment to becoming trained, we will be in a much safer place.

Let’s secure our community together. We must look out for each other. Our lives depend on it.

Sincerely,

Evan Bernstein

Evan Bernstein is national director and CEO of The Community Security Service (The CSS)

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