It was around lunch when I heard the news. A shooter opened fire with a semi-automatic weapon on the North Valley Jewish Community Center. Even though I was 30 minutes away, I froze. One person was killed and five others, including three children, were severely injured.
The incident, which happened two years before the 9/11 attacks, seemed incomprehensible. Yet the assailant—an avowed racist and anti-Semite—confessed to the shooting within hours. “[This is] a wake-up call for Americans to kill Jews,” he said.
It was also a wake-up call for me and my fears about my family’s security.
In the more than 20 years since, the rate of hate-motivated attacks in America has been steadily rising—indeed, over the past three years, it has more than doubled to approximately 7,000 incidents in 2019. Of those, 57 percent were perpetrated against Jews and Jewish communal institutions.
According to a 2019 Gallup poll, nearly 50 percent of all U.S. adults worry about becoming the victim of a mass shooting, and the polling shows that women consistently worry more than men. Therefore, as we mark International Women’s Day, it comes as no surprise that Jewish women are intensely concerned for the safety and security of their families. In a crisis, all women tend to be frontline caregivers and forces of resilience for their families and communities.
In the first few hours after the 9/11 attacks, I became acutely concerned with keeping my family safe. We had just dropped my eldest daughter off on the opposite coast at the University of Pennsylvania the week before, and she instantly felt millions of miles away. I had three kids in Jewish day school and attended a “Mommy & Me” program at our synagogue with our youngest son. I was wrought with worry for their welfare. However, in speaking with the area’s community of moms during the morning hours of that dreadful day, we all agreed that we would not be overcome by fear and anxiety. We would take our children to school—and we did. Not one child was absent.
In the years after, we began to organize and rethink security in Los Angeles’s Jewish community. In 2012, when we learned that the city was a top target for terrorists and attackers inspired by hate, our communal efforts intensified. Our Jewish Federation, the central organization of Jewish life in most North American communities, partnered with elected officials and local law enforcement to assess every Jewish facility. Today, nearly all Jewish classrooms, synagogues and community centers have the training and tools to cope with threats.
In many synagogues that observe Shabbat without the use of electricity, flashing lights operated by security personnel have been installed to warn rabbis of immediate danger. Every school classroom now has a backpack with special locks and other tools that fortify doors from the inside, keeping children safe for hours. A community command and control room at our Federation offices tracks threats and incidents across our sprawling community and manages an active response when necessary.
Nationally, we have the Secure Community Network: a “Department of Homeland Security” for the Jewish people. Created and supported by the Jewish Federations of North America, SCN is helping every community get to the same level of preparedness as my own community in Los Angeles, while connecting all of us nationwide to each other and to our national law-enforcement agencies. I agreed to chair the Federations’ National Security Initiative because I know the threats we face are as real in small communities as in large ones, in older established communities and in new growing ones—a project that the national Federation system and SCN are singularly positioned to take on. I also know that taking these steps to fortify our Jewish communal institutions will also help other groups threatened by violent extremism. While roughly half of hate-based attacks target Jews, other faith and minority groups are in need of training and support. The lessons we learn and resources we develop will benefit them as well.
Today, every Jewish mother I know has had to sit down with her child and explain why they are not going to live in fear, no matter the risks. Rather, they are going to thrive. We are securing our communities so we can send our children and grandchildren off each morning to engage in a joyful Jewish life.
We are Jewish security moms.
We joined thousands in public rallies that commemorated the victims of the Tree of Life mass synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. We continue to shop in Jewish markets after the attack on a kosher grocery in Jersey City, and we continue to attend Saturday-morning services in synagogues following the shooting in Poway, Calif., six months to the day of the Pittsburgh massacre, also on Shabbat. We continue to gather in private homes to celebrate Jewish holidays, even after the machete attack on a rabbi’s home in Monsey, N.Y.
Collectively, we must act now to combat hatred and its violent expression, ensuring that appropriate security and training empowers people to lead resilient lives. This past summer marked 20 years since the North Valley Jewish Community Center shooting. Benjamin Kadish, a 5-year-old survivor who lost 50 percent of his blood after being hit in the abdomen and leg, says he has been traumatized for his entire life. Every day, his mother reminds him how strong he was to survive such a horrendous event, and her words provide the strength that allows him to persevere. This is what moms do.
Jewish history is full of trauma. As a people, we know what it takes to persist, and as women, we have a unique role to play.
For the 12 Jewish worshippers who died in two synagogues while at prayer and for that 5-year-old child who nearly lost his life—and for the injured in those attacks and all those innocents who continue to suffer at the hands of extremists—we will do what it takes to keep our communities safe. This is not something we do only because we are women and Jews. We do this because as Americans, we hold dear the right to express ourselves safely in an open and democratic society.
I hope the day will come when all Americans can gather in absolute safety to celebrate, pray or simply eat a meal. Until that day comes, I will remain a Jewish security mom.
Julie Platt serves as an officer on the Jewish Federations of North America’s (JFNA) Board of Trustees and chairs the fundraising campaign for its National Community Security Initiative.