Danger travels. Jews would say in the time of Dreyfus, when it rains in Paris, open umbrellas in Odessa. And when the unspeakable happens in Paris, as it did in November, Jews in New York are asking if any “umbrella” can stop the “rain,” or even slow it.
The Community Security Service, a Manhattan-based Jewish volunteer group, already protecting more than 75 shuls and events, is one of several answers. David Dabscheck, CSS founder and president, says he’s fielded nearly a dozen calls from synagogues around the country since the ISIS rampage in Paris. By the end of the year, he says, CSS will be active in four states, expanding to a fifth in early 2016. More than 3,000 Jews are already volunteering for guard duty in their neighborhood shuls.
Adam Sager and Dabscheck, both 38, co-founded CSS in 2007. They felt somewhat uneasy one weekend in a New York shul. There was no security.
Dabscheck, who worked for the David Project, a collegiate pro-Israel education group, and who once barely escaped a car bomb in London, and Sager, who served in the IDF and had experience in corporate security, started organizing volunteers in coordination with the police and Jewish organizations. Now, alongside police, CSS helps protect several dozen neighborhood shuls and assists with security at major Jewish events such as Chabad’s annual banquet on the Brooklyn waterfront for 5,200 emissaries and the Israeli consulate’s recent memorial for Yitzchak Rabin at Temple Emanu-El. CSS does not charge for its security services, but accepts donations.
Local teams protect the shuls they attend, says Dabscheck, “across the denominations,” in New York City as well as Westchester, the Five Towns, and Bergen County. New CSS teams are forming at prominent synagogues such as the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and Lincoln Square Synagogue.
Juda Engelmayer, a CSS volunteer since 2012, says when protecting a shul, “We always get the rabbi’s approval first.” One rabbi declined to have a CSS team, deciding that his shul was in such a peaceful neighborhood, how could he justify the CSS team using radios and cell phones on Shabbos? “After Paris,” says Engelmayer, “we got a call. The rabbi wants to learn more.”
“Good security,” adds Dabscheck, “requires a holistic approach, and community engagement is a critical piece. Local involvement is important because what could be suspicious in one location might not be in another. Community volunteers bring familiarity, knowledge and are the most effective eyes and ears. Members of a synagogue know the layout of the building.” Even at non-synagogue Jewish events, “our people have a sense of what’s out of place, what behavior is expected. If there’s a detection of hostile activity,” Dabscheck says, “that’s where our partnership with the police comes in.”
The all-volunteer CSS has professional staff and a council of advisers with security and law enforcement backgrounds to “make sure,” says Dabscheck, “that our standards are professional in every respect.” For example, Scott Alswang, of the CSS leadership council, is a former policeman who spent 20 years in the Secret Service, protecting four presidents and numerous foreign leaders.
Grassroots protection of synagogues has come a long way since 1969, when the Jewish Defense League decided, unasked, to protect Temple Emanu-El from a black militant group that was demanding “reparations.” Rabbi Meir Kahane’s JDL sent 30 young men to the steps of the Temple with baseball bats, chains, lead pipes and brass knuckles. Nothing came of it, though the JDL ran a newspaper advertisement with a photo of themselves at the Temple, headlined: “Is this any way for nice Jewish boys to behave?” Most Jewish leaders thought not.
Forty-six years later, the CSS really is comprised of “nice Jewish boys,” often white-collar executives and professionals during the week, who don’t carry weapons. Or maybe they do. They prefer to let the bad guys guess. As Dabscheck says, “We don’t talk about the operational side of things.”
All of this far pre-dates Paris. Security for shuls around the world has plummeted in recent years. As Gertrude Stein might have said, before Paris was Paris it was Paris. Last year, JTA reported that dozens of anti-Israel rioters besieged a Paris synagogue with 200 congregants terrified inside. JTA reported, “the mob was kept away by [five policemen, a] Jewish security unit, the Jewish Defense League and Beitar, a Zionist youth group founded in Europe before the war, “who engaged the attackers in what turned into a street brawl.”
As chilling as that may sound, even more chilling were the murders inside Jerusalem’s undefended Har Nof synagogue last year, and the murders of men at prayer in Tel Aviv in November, and a stabbing in a Crown Heights synagogue last December. The vulnerability was underlined in June by the shooting deaths in a black church in South Carolina. According to the FBI, no religious group has been targeted more than Jews. In 2013, the FBI reported that Jews were victims in 60.3 percent of all religion-based hate crimes, more than four times the 13.7 percent rate of Muslims, the second-most targeted group. With terrorism often wreaking death and havoc in a matter of minutes, Jewish leaders have been examining self-defense models for those pivotal moments before the police can arrive.
In 2004, the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations established the Secure Community Network, to provide a central resource for law enforcement and Jewish communal security initiatives. Each of the Jewish denominations have been coordinating security with the SCN, along with more localized efforts from the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. A JCRC spokesman told us that the JCRC “encourages all Jewish organizations to create a culture of security. CSS is one option of many.” The Rabbinical Council of America, the largest mainstream Orthodox group, has been “partnering” with CSS since 2011 “to train community members to protect their institutions.”
And just this week, the New York City Council earmarked nearly $20 million for security guards at private schools, including approximately 100 yeshivas.
Additionally, the JCRC and Anti-Defamation League websites have considerable resources to prepare Jewish institutions for numerous scenarios. JCRC has been doing a lot of “active-shooter” training in partnership with the New York Police Department and the Department of Homeland Security, a spokesman said.
Fear of those brief but deadly moments between the start of gunfire and the arrival of police has led to a recent surge in the encouragement of private gun ownership. After the murders in Har Nof, Yeshiva World News published a halachic analysis that approved of “well-trained” individuals bringing guns to shul. In October, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat told Army Radio that Jews have a “duty” to carry guns. “Given the current escalation of violence … those with a licensed firearm who know what to do with it must go out with their weapon.”
In the United States, congregants have reported being surprised at how many fellow congregants they have seen practicing at shooting ranges, and joining one of several Jewish gun clubs across the country, such as the Golani Gun Club, with branches in Bergen County N.J. and Philadelphia.
CSS encourages the awareness of police-approved strategies for evacuations and defense in that time before police can arrive.
After 12 weeks of CSS training, Engelmayer, 46, a senior vice president at 5W Public Relations, volunteers at his shul, Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck, N.J., and at events such as the Rabin memorial. He plans to soon take an additional full-day course from Homeland Security and State Police.
Engelmayer says that at Rinat, "On Shabbos, we have three shifts… I get there, do a search of the shul, daven with hashkama… and then do my shmira [security watch]. By the time my shift is over, the Beis Medrash minyan starts layning, so I finish davening there.”
If someone with an AK-47 starts shooting “it’s unlikely we can stop them,” says Engelmayer. “But our ‘outside positions’ can warn the ‘inside’ to lock-down the shul. What we [learned from] Homeland Security and the FBI is that these attacks are [rarely] out of the blue.” An attacker will usually “first drive by the target, take pictures, check access…. We’re trained to deal with that. … When they see us standing outside, in our suits [or CSS windbreakers], wearing earpieces, maybe they’ll look for a softer target. They won’t know what kind of capabilities we have — whether we’re armed, how deep our security goes … . Having a CSS team on the site, particularly at high-risk times, can really pay dividends.”
Engelmayer mused, “If ISIS is planning something for the United States, then what we saw in Paris, we’ll see here… . It gets people thinking: What’s the least I can do to be prepared?”