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To protect Jewish buildings, ‘look at it from the eyes of an attacker’

Rusty Rosenthal, executive director for community security at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, told JNS about communal responses to post-Oct. 7 threats.

Rusty Rosenthal, executive director of community security at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, in his office at the Federation on Feb. 26, 2024. Photo by Andrew Bernard.
Rusty Rosenthal, executive director of community security at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, in his office at the Federation on Feb. 26, 2024. Photo by Andrew Bernard.

A 25-year veteran of the FBI, Rusty Rosenthal had a front-row seat to understanding the difference between U.S. and Israeli approaches to security during his 11 years working in the bureau’s Tel Aviv field office.

“I worked with all the Israeli services—the Shin Bet, Mossad and the police—for all those years and really had an appreciation for their entire society’s culture of security, as opposed to ours sometimes, which is really a culture of freedom and privacy,” Rosenthal told JNS.

“Sometimes those are at odds with each other,” said Rosenthal, the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s executive director of community security since November.

In his new job, Rosenthal tries to inhabit those who would harm Jews.

“When you approach a building, for better or worse, you look at it from the eyes of an attacker,” he told JNS. “You start from the outside. What are they seeing? Somebody wants to do harm. What are they observing?”

Whether doors are closed and locked is elementary. “Are they walking around and seeing doors propped open?” he said. “Or is there one entrance, and there are ushers or greeters so that everyone is being looked at and knows you’re there?”

Some measures that he recommends seem obvious or basic, considering how quickly the threat environment has shifted, Rosenthal acknowledges. “A few years ago, we weren’t even thinking about these things,” he said.

‘A lot of pivoting’

The Washington Federation created Rosenthal’s role just before Oct. 7, in response to already spiking Jew-hatred.

The Federation is responsible for some 300,000 Jews and 250 institutions, including synagogues, Jewish community centers and office buildings for Jewish organizations. 

“We have the entire spectrum of not only politics but religiousness, so it’s an interesting and nuanced region in that respect,” he told JNS. “You’re trying to meet the needs of a lot of different individuals.” 

“That’s one of the reasons why the Federation decided to go this direction, so that we can tailor our services to the community as it needs, and that means a lot of pivoting sometimes,” he added.

Though the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish groups have recorded record spikes in Jew-hatred since Oct. 7, Rosenthal sees the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally of alt-right and neo-Nazi extremists in Charlottesville, Va., as the marker of a shift in normalization of antisemitism.

“I always look back to Charlottesville, when white supremacists were marching brazenly and openly with Nazi paraphernalia and chanting Nazi chants and slogans,” he said. “Historically, when you see an increase in online hate, in the graffiti, in the harassment, there’s always an act of violence that comes along with it.”

Security camera
A security camera with a Star of David in the background. Credit: pixinoo/Shutterstock.

Unique situations

“When I was overseas, we used to say, ‘If you’ve worked in one embassy, you’ve worked in one embassy,’ because every place operates differently,” Rosenthal told JNS. “Now I say the same thing when I go into synagogues.”

“Should we have security? Should it be armed security? How many? Where should they be staged?” he said. “These are the conversations that we’re having and need to have with every single institution.”

The Biden administration unveiled its U.S. National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism, which includes more than 200 policy proposals and hundreds of action items for the federal government and for companies, schools and local governments, in May 2023.

Over the past decade, the U.S. Congress has dramatically increased funding for the Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which helps bolster security for synagogues, day schools and other at-risk locations. 

The 2014 federal budget included just $14 million for the program, which has grown to $274.5 million in the 2024 spending package, though that was a 10% cut from 2023. Jewish groups have said that at least twice as much funding is needed to meet the community’s security needs.

Rosenthal told JNS that every Jewish institution has to consider what level of security is appropriate for the threats it might face, and with which it is comfortable.

Many Jewish leaders refer sardonically to the enormous cost of these security measures as the “antisemitism tax,” which Jewish institutions must pay to protect themselves. Rosenthal sees those costs as an unfortunate necessity.

“When you think about the amount of resources being put towards security amongst the Jewish community these days, and you think about what those resources could be going to otherwise, and all these other great things that organizations like the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington do, I think that’s disappointing,” he said. 

“But I think it’s just part of the reality,” he said.

Programs like the Nonprofit Security Grant Program are largely intended to fund one-time grants for physical security improvements, such as concrete barriers, reinforced doors and alarm systems. Many institutions have also hired or are considering hiring costly armed security guards. 

Rosenthal told JNS that he doesn’t recommend armed security guards for every institution. He also doubts that those who buy guns will end up improving security for themselves or their communities.

“I’m very skeptical of untrained people carrying weapons,” he said. “I know for a fact that no matter how much people think they’re training with their weapons, they’re not going to be trained to the extent it’s probably necessary to handle a weapon in the type of situation that we’re foreseeing.”

“There are so many other things than just going to a range and hitting a target when it’s going to matter,” he said. “A lot of things go out the window in the moment of true stress, heightened blood pressure, tunnel vision. It’s a very risky scenario.”

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