Ahead of High Holidays, US Jewish leaders stress need for security vigilance as antisemitism surges
Ahead of the High Holidays that begin this week, a network of Jewish security experts and religious leaders hosted several webinars to help prepare for the season. Among the topics: How to respond to an “active threat” targeting the Jewish community, and how to stop severe bleeding.
The holidays, encompassing Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, are meant to be a period of joy and reflection. Over recent years — in the face of increased antisemitic threats and violence — the season also is a time of heightened vigilance.
“The High Holidays are about renewal — about trying to build a better world,” said Rabbi Noah Farkas, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “But we can’t do that without a security regimen that makes people comfortable to go to synagogue.”
Farkas his community was jolted in late July when federal and local law enforcement agencies arrested a man from the Los Angeles neighborhood of Reseda who allegedly was affiliated with a violent white supremacist group and had been advocating antisemitic violence.
According to the regional U.S. Attorney’s Office, Ryan Scott Bradford “posted online messages and photographs documenting his use of a 3-D printer to manufacture firearms, as well as calling for the mass murder of Jews.”
Officers searching his home found Nazi propaganda, 116 rounds of ammunition, and devices designed to help create automatic firearms.
“The potential danger to the community cannot be overstated.” said U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada.
Farkas’ federation, and its counterparts around the U.S., have taken numerous steps to enhance safety, notably through professionally led community security initiatives that offer advice, training and other security resources to Jewish schools, synagogues and organizations.
Experts with the Los Angeles CSI provided suspicious-activity reports to law enforcement in 2022 and early 2023 that helped lay the groundwork for the recent arrest in Reseda.
Security measures have been expanding at Jewish institutions across the U.S. for more than a decade, but efforts intensified after a gunman killed 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27, 2018. It was the deadliest act of antisemitic violence in U.S. history; the gunman, Robert Bowers, was sentenced to death in early August at the close of a lengthy, wrenching trial.
One of the biggest security initiatives since the massacre was launched in 2021 by the Jewish Federations of North America — a $130 million campaign seeking to ensure that every Jewish community in the U.S. and Canada has access to state-of-the-art communal security programs. As of last month, 103 Jewish federations in the two countries had programs based on standards set by the Secure Community Network; the requirements include community-wide trainings and intelligence-sharing with law enforcement.
The SCN was the organizer of the recent series of nine webinars – including those on severe bleeding and “active threats” — offered ahead of this year’s High Holidays.
Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, said he — like many Jews — wishes Rosh Hashana could be savored joyfully, without the need for security preparations and the worries about antisemitic threats.
“But we quickly move to the recognition that you can’t have those joyful things unless you feel safe and secure,” he said.
“People have come to accept it, but I don’t know if we’ve fully internalized what the long-term costs will be,” he added. “It’s not going to go away, like a hurricane or tornado. This is going to be a permanent, ongoing feature as long as we can see into the future.”
Nationwide, the security initiatives have been bolstered by constant expansion and broader collaboration.
Earlier this month, the Orthodox Union, the largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization, announced a partnership with the Community Security Service, a leading Jewish security organization, to encourage more Orthodox congregation members to volunteer for security training.
Last month, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Anti-Defamation League of Los Angeles announced a new joint effort to prevent and combat antisemitic incidents in Southern California.
“When you combine resources, you can connect the dots between what might appear to be unrelated incidents of antisemitism and paint a clearer picture of the challenges we face,” said Jeffrey Abrams, regional director of ADL Los Angeles.
The new head of the Greater Los Angeles federation’s Community Security Initiative is Larry Mead, a 36-year veteran of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department who specialized in intelligence gathering targeting gangs and organized crime. Since his hiring in early August, Mead says it’s “been an eye-opener” to learn the extent and vehemence of antisemitic threats.
Mead said synagogues in California were among several dozen nationwide recently targeted by fake bomb threats and antisemitic swatting incidents that disrupted services and rattled worshippers.
“The people doing this — they want to frustrate the Jewish community,” Mead said. “We can’t let them win.”
Farkas said the intelligence reports he gets from Mead “make me sad.”
“Here we are going into High Holidays,” Farkas said. “Why has it got to be that Jewish people, in order to celebrate the most sacred days of the year, have to check in with the police?”
“I worry that something bad is going to happen, because it feels almost inevitable,” he added. “That’s a tough place to be emotionally.”
Even as the threats and attacks persist, there have been documented instances demonstrating the value of new security measures.
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, one of the rabbis conducting services when Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue was attacked, had never carried a cellphone on Shabbat prior to receiving active-shooter training. He had his phone with him during the attack, and was able to call 911.
Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, one of three people held hostage for 10 hours at his Colleyville, Texas synagogue in 2022, credited their escape to security training he had received over the years.
“Without the instruction we received, we would not have been prepared to act and flee when the situation presented itself,” the rabbi said.
In November, when the FBI said it had received credible information about a “broad” threat to synagogues in New Jersey, Jewish leaders in part of the state were able to get real-time updates via text message thanks to a new emergency broadcast system established by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.
One of the duties for that federation’s director of community security, Tim Torell, is providing PowerPoint presentations on the active-shooter response strategy known as “Run, Hide, Fight.”
“The Jewish community does not want to do this — it wants to go worship and not have to worry about an active shooter,” Torell said. “But there is a need to do it.”
He recounted a recent training session where most of the participants were in their 70s, including a woman who came up to him at the end, tears in her eyes.
“She said, ’We’re grateful, but I can’t believe the world is coming to this. I can’t believe we have to do this in my synagogue,'” Torell recalled.
“She got to me,” he added. “I’m standing there, trying not to lose it.”
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