How to prevent another Pittsburgh

If a Jewish facility wants to be safe, it needs to take security seriously.

The Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue in Pittsburgh, where a mass shooting took place during Shabbat services on Oct. 27, 2018. Source: Google Maps screenshot.
The Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue in Pittsburgh, where a mass shooting took place during Shabbat services on Oct. 27, 2018. Source: Google Maps screenshot.
Michael Masters
Michael Masters serves as the national director and CEO of the Secure Community Network (SCN).

Four months ago, 11 Jewish Americans were gunned down in an attack on the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Since then, the FBI has arrested three people in Washington state, Ohio and Georgia who threatened to attack synagogues.

Think another attack won’t happen? The threat facing the Jewish community is real, so we must take meaningful action to protect our families and neighbors. Just as Israel has an Iron Dome missile-defense system to keep its people safe, America’s Jewish community needs a security shield so we can be safe.

As the official security arm of the Jewish Federation system and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the Secure Community Network (SCN) goes into communities to build that shield. We provide assessments of the physical security of buildings; we make recommendations for what to improve; and we deploy critical, real-world training to prevent and respond to worst-case scenarios. We also support communities after tragic events, as we did in Charlottesville and Pittsburgh.

We are former and current military, law enforcement and homeland security experts who have served in various command, operational and task force roles. For the past 15 years, we have quietly done our job so others can pray, play and go to religious school, synagogue or summer camp in peace. The growing threat level today, however, requires us to no longer be as quiet. Things need to change. The job of safety and security belongs to all of us now.

The key to security comes down to three actions: assess, improve and deploy, or “AID.”

Assess: The first thing we do when we visit a site is assess physical structures, whether it’s a synagogue, community center, a Hillel or a children’s sleep-away camp. We look for gates and vehicular barriers, or the lack of them. We inspect communications systems, including alarms, panic buttons and mass notification systems. Are there cameras? Are they actively monitored? Doors are crucial. How many are there? Can they be locked so visitors gain entry through only one door, but congregants in an emergency can get out through many doors?

Are there guards? Are they lightly trained synagogue staffers/volunteers, or are they highly trained off-duty or on-duty law-enforcement officials?

We also provide an expert review of written security plans. How good are they? Who is trained to carry them out? When was the last training? How often does training take place? Or is there really no plan at all?

Improve: Once our assessment is complete, we make recommendations for what to improve. It can include something simple: Lock all your doors except one, so there is only one way into your facility. Place alarms on your doors, so if it is opened from the inside, an alert is sent so the door can be properly closed and locked.

It can include more complicated matters. A common weakness we find is that leaders think they have a security plan, but they really don’t. It may be weak. It may be old. It may never be practiced, or it was practiced so long ago that half the people who took part don’t work—or pray—in the synagogue any more. A good plan saves lives. Security plans must be reviewed, improved and regularly practiced.

In addition, who oversees security? Is there a security committee that has critical participation from lay people and professionals, ensuring a continuous and ongoing focus on safety? Is there a full-time, knowledgeable expert, preferably a former law-enforcement person? Or is security run by a lay volunteer, facilities manager or different professional with no formal training or experience, and who really isn’t sure of what to do? If a Jewish facility wants to be safe, it needs to take security seriously. We help Jewish groups create security committees, hire experts or support them directly in their efforts.

Deploy: The Federation and Conference created SCN in 2004 knowing security issues are not easy or simple for many in the community. Our team of military, law-enforcement and security experts was created to be deployed into communities to provide the training, planning and thinking necessary to help communities build a security shield.  We recognize the sensitivities and concerns that every synagogue or Jewish day school has about security issues, and we work with them to implement plans that work. We are not volunteers. We are not private consultants. We are professionals who are dedicated to serving and protecting our community.

As experts, we also work closely and have direct relationships with the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and joint terrorism task forces, as well as fusion centers to coordinate and share information. The government is keenly aware of the unique threat faced by the Jewish community. They want our input and they share information. We provide it wherever it is needed; we also coordinate with government officials closely during threats and incidents.

Some have said the attack on the Tree of Life was a wake-up call to the American Jewish community. We don’t view it as a wake-up call; we view it as a call to action. We know threats exist. We also know preparation and prevention are the keys to minimizing or eliminating future attacks.

For thousands of years, the Jewish people have been threatened, but proudly, we survive—and thrive. Our mission is to allow parents, children, congregants, seniors, rabbis, ushers and staff to be able to worship, celebrate and be together in peace, knowing those with knowledge and expertise have worked to address security issues, build a plan and implement it, all designed to create the shield our community needs.

Michael Masters, a homeland security and law-enforcement official and former captain in the Marine Corps, is the national director and CEO of the Secure Community Network. A certified police officer, he is trained in special weapons and tactics, and has served on numerous task forces for the Department of Homeland Security. He previously served on the executive board of the FBI’s Chicago Joint Terrorism Task Force.


The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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