A few years ago, Elliot Forchheimer, CEO of the Westchester Jewish Council, said communities were wary of conducting active-shooter drills.
“Back then, the conversation was about not wanting to frighten people,” he said.
Today, he said, his organization “cannot offer enough active shooter trainings to keep up with the demand.”
After a year of mass shootings — including two attacks this past weekend, the first at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, killing 22; the second at a bar in Dayton, Ohio, killing nine — Jewish community centers and synagogues around the country are actively drilling their members on what to do if confronted with the kind of situation already faced by the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and the Chabad of Poway in San Diego.
“The biggest challenge, in the Jewish community and more broadly, is the mistaken thought that ‘it could never happen here,’” said Michael Masters, executive director of the Secure Community Network, an umbrella organization that provides guidance to Jewish institutions on security procedures. “The greatest enemy in a lot of these situations is denying the reality of the world we live in.”
This, even as a white supremacist blaming HIAS for its aiding of asylum seekers at the southern border is accused of killing 11 worshippers last October in Pittsburgh, and another white supremacist allegedly killed one worshipper in Poway, Calif.
As the national death toll from mass shootings rises, and as the Jewish community debates whether security guards and even congregants should be armed at shul, many synagogues, JCCs and day schools are setting up protocols in advance of a potential active-shooter situation.
“When a rabbi or a guest speaker welcomes everyone to a space and then immediately points out the emergency exits, the change is apparent,” said Forchheimer, whose umbrella organization provides active shooter training resources to about 50 Westchester synagogues and 100 Jewish organizations and community centers. “In the world we live in, no one is asking why.”
At the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City in Overland Park, Kan., security and emergency preparedness are paramount, and for good reason. In April 2014, a gunman opened fire in the parking lot of the JCC, claiming the lives of a 69-year-old man and his 14-year-old grandson.
“Lives are lost in the seconds and minutes it takes for law enforcement to arrive on the scene,” said Chuck Green, the director of community security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City. “Most of the time, the shooting is over by the time police arrive.”
The goal, he said, is to empower teachers and staff in the interim between an emergency notification and the arrival of law enforcement.
In recent months, the Overland Park JCC has begun piloting SafeDefend, a comprehensive emergency alert system that uses a fingerprint-activated alarm system to notify and protect individuals in the event of an armed intruder.
Once the system is activated, an alert is sent immediately to law enforcement with the exact building and room number where the system was activated. Fingerprint-activated safes equip classrooms at the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy, a Jewish day school for kindergarten through 12th graders that is housed at the Overland Park JCC facility.
Emergency materials in the safe include gel pepper spray, a baton with a window breaker, a trauma kit, safety vest, flex cuffs and a high-intensity strobe flashlight to keep the shooter at bay.
“The goal is to empower first-responders with the swipe of a finger,” said Jeff Green, the founder of SafeDefend. Before developing the product, Green worked as a school principal when the Sandy Hook tragedy took place — a mass shooting at a school in Newtown, Conn., in which the gunman murdered 20 first-graders and six educators.
“After Sandy Hook, I couldn’t sleep at night thinking about what I would do if my students were in danger,” said Green. The late nights led to the development of SafeDefend as a side-hustle; today, the product serves 250 facilities across nine states.
“Until now, first-responders have not had very many options once an armed intruder gets past the door.”
David Pollock, the director of public policy and security for the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), said that what product an institution uses is far less important than “having a plan.”
“I get countless calls from synagogues asking if I can come and do an active-shooter training for their congregation,” said Pollock, who has trained hundreds of Jewish institutions and conducted 15 regional trainings since the October Pittsburgh shooting. “I say, sure. But before that, how have you been actively planning?”
A “plan” can come in many forms and should be facility and community specific, said Pollock. “There are countless ways of manifesting the three magic options: run, hide or fight.”
But where to run and where to hide are questions institutions often don’t think about until it is too late, said Pollock. Supported by grants from UJA-Federation of New York and the Paul E. Singer Foundation, JCRC has performed “hundreds of assessments” of Jewish institutions, to help constituents identify the safest places to hide, and instruct them on how to make those hiding-spots even safer.
“Training enables people,” said Pollock. “If you make people feel competent in their ability to make decisions in an emergency situation, it will keep constituents safe.”
For Forchheimer, who says he has been preaching active-shooter preparedness for over a decade, active shooter drills go beyond table-top exercises and identifying local police departments (though those are both critical elements, he said).
“It’s about the mindset that an average layperson is capable of making informed decisions at a moment’s notice that can save lives,” he said. Over the past three years, Westchester Jewish organizations have been called upon to use their emergency communications systems on several occasions, one of which was a 2017 bomb scare at a JCC.
“This is our new normal,” he said.