newsJewish & Israeli Holidays

HIGH HOLIDAYS 2023

Homeland Security advice: During High Holidays, worshippers should feel safe but be vigilant

“No member of any community should be worried when they go to observe their faith,” says Samantha Vinograd, assistant secretary for counterterrorism and threat prevention at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

A gate with a Star of David on it. Credit: 
Shutterstock/Peter Ekvall.
A gate with a Star of David on it. Credit: Shutterstock/Peter Ekvall.
Samantha Vinograd, assistant secretary for counterterrorism and threat prevention at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Credit: DHS Photo by Applebaum via Wikimedia Commons.

The federal government works closely with colleagues at all levels in the United States and overseas “to ensure that members of the Jewish community are able to observe the High Holy Days safely,” Samantha Vinograd, assistant secretary for counterterrorism and threat prevention at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, told JNS.

That includes reviewing available intelligence to detect threats as early as possible and sharing information with partners, “including appropriate officials within the faith-based community,” said Vinograd, who is Jewish and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor.

The Biden administration unveiled the country’s first national strategy to combat antisemitism in May. The strategy purports to advance a whole-of-society approach, in addition to a government-wide one, in beating back Jew-hatred.

The Homeland Security Department has been “rapidly implementing” the national strategy since the latter’s introduction, according to Vinograd.

‘Listening sessions’

Vinograd spoke with Jewish and other faith communities last week in Brooklyn, N.Y., and heard their concerns and recommendations, as she has done at similar events across the country, she told JNS.

“We’re engaging in those listening sessions,” she said. “We’re adjusting our training as a department to ensure that it adequately accounts for any bias or potential discrimination.”

The department is publishing fact sheets “that speak to protections for members of the religious community,” said Vinograd, noting that Homeland Security plans to launch a week of action soon that aims to protect houses of worship.

Vinograd stated that the department is “literally” marshaling all of its resources. It also aims to educate the public about available resources, including security grants to harden religious facilities against attackers, training for security professionals and other members of faith-based communities in the case of an attack and security assessments of religious sites.

‘A range of swatting incidents’

“Every single American, whether you’re Jewish or not Jewish, has a responsibility to speak up if they see incidents of potential bias, discrimination or a potential threat,” Vinograd told JNS.

Homeland Security is operating in a “heightened threat environment” and the terrorism threat landscape is “incredibly dynamic” with respect to the evolution of violent groups and their motivations and tactics, according to Vinograd.

“We’re seeing a range of swatting incidents, fake bomb threats as well as attempts to harass, intimidate as well as physical attacks, unfortunately, at a range of targets that are perceived to be, for example, associated with the Jewish faith,” she said. “Whether it’s real or a perception.” (Swatting refers to reporting fake dangers to direct large numbers of emergency personnel to a site.)

The department relies on its strong partnerships “to gather intelligence, disseminate intelligence and respond if we think that an incident may arise,” both during the High Holidays and throughout the year, Vinograd said.

To be vigilant, religious communities should ask for help as early as possible when they see a person who may be headed down a violent path. Still, the government can’t “arrest their way out of the problem,” noted Vinograd. And, she said, many of those who menace the Jewish community need clinical help before their rhetoric turns to action.

Vinograd encourages fellow Jews to feel reassured this holiday season.

“When I go to synagogue on Saturday with my daughter, I will feel safe based on the incredible work that dedicated public servants all across this country are doing,” she told JNS.

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