by Larry Broder
Warm and welcoming vs. safe and secure. Open doors vs. access control. Posted service schedule vs. limited access to vetted population. High web presence vs. low profile. The conflicts we face as we operate our synagogues are enormous; the consequences of poor or no preparation are immeasurable.
During my 20-year tenure here, much has changed at Temple De Hirsch Sinai. Always an inner-city congregation, we had plainclothes guards at Shabbat services because we wanted security but didn’t want to scare our congregants. This changed on 9/11 and again on July 28, 2006, when Naveed Haq, a self-proclaimed “Muslim American, angry at Israel,” entered our local Jewish Federation office, killing one and injuring five. What “happens elsewhere” happened here, and life hasn’t been the same since. Now, our guards are uniformed, armed, and visible at almost every event, welcomed by and a part of our community.
These days, all businesses, religious institutions and schools need to establish and maintain effective security procedures – and unfortunately, synagogues face a greater threat than other institutions. Beyond natural disasters, we face risks attributed to visitors, our own worshippers, current and former employees, non-custodial parents, the mentally unstable, zealous lone wolves, white supremacists, and local/national/international terrorists – among others. It’s enough to overwhelm us, but it should also be enough to make us prepare.
Security practices are like prunes: Is one enough, or are two too many? If nothing bad happens when you have them, you will never know if it might have happened without them. Proactively developing realistic plans and training ensures that in the event of a disaster, our community is prepared to respond in a coordinated manner to minimize damage. At Temple De Hirsch Sinai, we have a more complex challenge of managing two full-service, full-time campuses – one, a high-profile Seattle icon of almost two city blocks, and another located on two wooded acres in suburban Bellevue. Safety, health, and security are our priorities. All our staff has a special responsibility to care for themselves and their coworkers as well as all members and occupants.
We are blessed with a staff that is concerned, committed, educated and, hopefully, prepared to respond. Every staffer is trained to consider him or herself a resident security expert within the limits of his or her position and location. We work as a team to be as safe and secure as possible. Seattle and Bellevue SWAT Teams and entire police precinct squads have trained in our facilities. Several of us attended FBI’s Citizen Academies; I serve on the Bellevue Police Foundation Board, and one of our rabbis is a Seattle Police Department Chaplain. We include law enforcement at many of our trainings because I want first responders to be familiar with our facilities and occupants – so that if the unthinkable happens, we get the best, fastest, and most educated response.
At Temple De Hirsch Sinai, we conducted a dual-campus threat assessment that provides an organized approach to emergency planning, reduces vulnerability to emergencies and disasters, enhances & improves response capabilities, and more. As a result of the assessment, our congregational efforts include the following behavioral strategies:
- Conducting criminal background checks of staff and volunteers
- Providing education and training for staff and volunteers
- Training staff to follow “see something, say something” practices
- Developing standard operating procedures for approaching strangers, bomb threats, suspicious packages, etc.
- Reviewing, revising, and exercising emergency response plans and training for all staff
- Creating a media response team and a permanent security team
- Maintaining relationship with law enforcement and first responders
- Coordinating efforts and sharing information with other Jewish organizations
- Securing accurate, current threat information for our region
- Maintaining visible security elements
But one synagogue preparing alone is not enough. Communication during and after the Jewish Federation shooting showed that to be safe, secure, and prepared, the entire Seattle Jewish community needed to coordinate efforts on communication, training, education, and information- and intelligence-sharing.
Our SAFE Washington organization now includes more than 80 Jewish entities and fosters a relationship between the Jewish community and Washington’s federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. We provide all-threat disaster training and resources so that each institution can better prepare and respond in their own unique manner. When a reported incident (vandalism, suspicious person, bomb threat, etc.) occurs at one institution, all members of SAFE Washington – as well as law enforcement – receive a text message or email. As I write this, our SAFE Washington coordinator sent a message about a suspicious male attempting to enter a member organization’s office by claiming he knew an employee there. It ended with, “Should you see this person at your facility or have any contact with him, please dial 911 immediately and notify SAFE Washington.” As a community, we now look out for each other.
Resources abound: As we prepare for the High Holy Days, the set of resources compiled by the URJ become invaluable tools for your congregation to use. Local first-responding agencies are also delighted to assist, as they recognize that it is better for them to maintain good relationships with synagogues. Congregations cannot assume disasters will happen elsewhere. Just as we in Seattle are your “elsewhere,” you may become someone else’s! Stay safe.
Larry Broder is the executive director of Temple De Hirsch Sinai in Seattle, WA. If your congregation would like the blueprint for replicating the SAFE Washington model, please email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.