As Jewish families around the world prepared for the High Holidays last month, the most significant days of the Jewish calendar, synagogues prepared to facilitate services under unprecedented circumstances due to the coronavirus pandemic. For those of us that work on providing security for the Jewish community, it would become yet another time of heightened vigilance.
The need for Jewish institutions to take security seriously is not without good reason. Our alertness unfortunately remains an evergreen state of mind.
Jewish communities across the globe and here at home continue to be plagued by high levels of antisemitism - from rhetoric rearing its ugly head in the public square - to violent incidents motivated by deep anti-Jewish animus. We have even witnessed rhetoric percolate in the digital conspiracy theory abyss claiming that COVID-19 is a tool for Jews to assert their global influence. In the United States, Jews remain at the top of the FBI’s list of religious groups that suffer from being the most frequently targeted for hate crimes in the past 19 years.
This enduring threat became apparent again in a series of antisemitic incidents that took place over three weeks during the High Holidays. These incidents were not confined to a single geographical area, and serve as testament to the ongoing singling out of global Jewry and the infinite number of soft targets available to extremists that want to inflict harm on the Jewish community.
Between September 24 and October 11, Jews were spit on and harassed while leaving synagogues in North America and Europe. A Jewish father and his son were threatened outside of a synagogue, and two separate homes were spray-painted with antisemitic language in Ontario, Canada. White supremacists distributed antisemitic fliers in Nevada and in front of synagogues across Scandinavia. A kosher restaurant in Paris was destroyed and vandalized with antisemitic slurs. An orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn was damaged, a public park in Long Island was defaced with swastikas, and Jewish cemeteries in Greece and Argentina were desecrated.
The most severe incident that took place during this year’s holidays was an eerie resemblance of an attack that rattled Germany’s Jewish community in 2019, in which a heavily armed right-wing extremist attempted to force his way into a synagogue and subsequently shot two individuals in a nearby attack after being unable to enter the facility. This year, on October 4 during the holiday of Sukkot, a man wearing military fatigues approached the entrance of a synagogue in Hamburg, and used a shovel to severely injure a Jewish student before being confronted by the synagogue’s security and police in what was yet another violent antisemitic attack.
These incidents send a stark message. While the synagogues in Halle and Hamburg both had a certain level of proactive security precautions and protocols in place in the face of enduring threats - which mitigated the impact of the attacks - the vandalizing of restaurants and cemeteries demonstrate the susceptibility of practically any kind of Jewish facility as a “soft target.” This vulnerability was also prevalent in the United States in 2019, most notably, where extremists attacked a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, New Jersey, and the private home of a prominent Rabbi in Monsey, New York.
From a security point of view, however, there is also a more hopeful message. For those institutions that are likely targets of violent antisemitism and hate, and that have the awareness and willingness to proactively take measures against these threats, basic but fundamental security routines can make a tangible difference in the realm of safety.
The right wing extremist who tried to enter the synagogue in Halle failed because the building had a reinforced door and security protocols that prevented individuals from being able to enter uninvited. The perpetrator of this year’s attack in Hamburg was only able to inflict limited damage because the synagogue’s security reportedly identified him early and moved most congregants away from the danger. The perpetrator of the vandalism of an Orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn was arrested and charged with a hate crime because of cameras that had been installed around the synagogue, which enabled police to identify and track him down.
The congregants and leadership of all these synagogues knew enough about their security situation to ensure that cameras were installed, that procedures were followed so that the door remained closed, and to evacuate safely after instructions from security personnel.
Seemingly small but effective security measures - coupled with a community that has been properly trained by professionals - can prevent the impact of attacks and ultimately save lives.