When the new Community Safety Initiative in New York City began offering active shooter response training shortly after its inception in February 2020, there seemed to be limited interest among local synagogues and Jewish institutions.
In two years, only about five Jewish institutions in the area have received such training, according to Mitch Silber, executive director of the Jewish Community Program.
But one Shabbat morning last January, a British Pakistani man took four people hostage at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, threatening their lives for more than 11 hours before the rabbi orchestrated a daring escape.
At the appropriate moment, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker shouted for the hostages to run and threw a chair at the assailant, allowing him and the two remaining hostages (one had been freed hours earlier) to escape. escape alive. An armed tactical team then entered the synagogue and shot the terrorist.
Afterwards, Cytron-Walker said that he and the other hostages survived thanks to the active threat security training they received.
“Over the past few years we’ve had training – it’s not training, it’s, I guess, courses, instruction – with the FBI, with the Colleyville Police Department, with the Anti League -defamation, with Secure Community Network, and they really teach you in those times that if you’re in the moment where your life is threatened, you have to do whatever you can,” he said in an interview with CBS TV. “To get to safety, you have to do everything you can to get out.”
The Colleyville episode had repercussions on the Jewish community of New York. In the days that followed, the Community Safety Initiative received about 75 requests for active threat training from leaders of synagogues, day schools and other Jewish institutions, according to Silber, who previously worked on a initiative assessing threats to Jewish communities in Europe for Jews. businessman and philanthropist Ronald Lauder and as Director of Intelligence Analysis for the New York Police Department.
Amid heightened concerns about threats to the Jewish community, Silber’s organization — created by the UJA-Federation of New York and run in partnership with the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York — has worked to respond to this demand and to provide those who work in and use Jewish institutions with the know-how to feel, and hopefully be, less vulnerable to such attacks.
The deadly July 4 parade shooting in the heavily Jewish suburb of Highland Park, Illinois underscores the dangers not just for Jews, several of whom were among the victims, but for Americans everywhere.
The Community Safety Initiative has eight people who provide training to synagogue leaders, clergy, teachers, and congregants, among others. In a typical session, an instructor reviews past shootings, such as the 2019 attack in California at the Chabad Synagogue in Poway, where a woman was killed and three others injured.
“Among a number of questions, we discuss what turned out to be the behaviors and actions taken by people in these situations that were predictive of a greater possibility of survival,” Silber said.
Instructors discuss creating a “culture of safety” – meaning, for example, creating a safety committee that could include clergy, maintenance staff and local law enforcement .
“When you think of your favorite athlete, team or musician, do they get good at what they do and then stop training? No, definitely not,” said Bill Hayes, regional security manager for the Community Security Initiative of Westchester and Bronx. during a recent virtual training. “Similarly, security is not a spectator sport. This requires the full involvement of the whole community.
Hayes and others also stress the importance of access control.
That means considering how to examine those who should be examined without intruding or inconveniencing others or creating an environment that creates a negative mood for those who should be inside the building, Hayes explained.
If an attacker manages to enter the building, the choices are: “Run. To hide. Fight” and they are not necessarily sequential in their usefulness.
The goal is to “buy time and spare us until the police arrive,” said Liron Filiby, regional security manager for Long Island.
Trainees also practice possible responses to an attack.
“If you evacuate, where are you going? Filiby said. “If you hide, how do you do that? How to close the door? Do you have a lock on the door? If you fight, how do you fight? Now we don’t teach people how to fight. We teach them the principle of where to position themselves against an attacker to delay their entry into the secure shelter-in-place area.
UJA-Federation of New York decided to invest in the Community Safety Initiative after the 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh that left 11 dead in what was the deadliest anti-Semitic attack ever recorded in the United States, as well as the attack on a Chabad in Poway, California, which left one person dead.
But those assaults haven’t led to the same demand for active threat training, Silber observed. He speculated that the result in Pittsburgh may have been so horrific that the country’s Jews failed to realize the usefulness of active shooter training.
“Even if they had received training,” Silber said of the Tree of Life congregation, “and even if that alleviated the situation, I don’t think the message that the wider Jewish community got from it was: Do this training. It will be useful.
But in Colleyville, the circumstances were different: The rabbi’s actions clearly made the difference.
“I think unfortunately being Jewish in 2022 in the United States means you have to prepare for things that have unfortunately become far too common,” Silber said.
In 2021, more than 2,700 anti-Semitic incidents in the United States were reported to the Anti-Defamation League and its partners, according to the group’s annual report34% more than the ADL counted in 2020 and the highest number since the organization began tracking such incidents in 1979.
The Community Security Initiative also monitors online threats, employing a threat intelligence analyst who scours mainstream social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, as well as the darker corners of the internet.
The analyst looks for posts that might be worth alerting law enforcement to a possible threat – for example, if there appears to be a clear and present threat or if a specific institution is named. The public can also play an important role by reporting anti-Semitic messages to the Community Safety Initiative.
During in-person training at the community synagogue in Sands Point, New York, Filiby showed staff safe places to hide and provided advice such as closing blinds during an attack, Jeff Rembrandt recalled, executive director of the Reformed congregation.
“Most shooters are looking for soft targets,” said Rembrandt, who has taken part in several trainings. “They don’t shoot in rooms where they don’t know what’s going on. So close the shutters, lock the door and you’ll make it a tough target.
At the Kehillath Shalom Synagogue, a rebuilding congregation in the woods of Huntington, New York, attendees of a training course asked Filiby whether they should exit through the front door or the back door during an attack, said recalled Rabbi Lina Zerbarini.
Filiby said recent attackers entered through the front door, but the advice, of course, is to run in the opposite direction of the attack. He also stressed the importance of conducting drills regularly, Zerbarini said.
Based on Filiby’s recommendation, the congregation placed blinds on its front windows.
“We’re trying to find the balance between not feeling like we’re in a fortress,” Zerbarini said, “not feeling like you have to isolate yourself from the world, not feeling like you have to exclude others — but also being realistic .”
This story was sponsored and produced in partnership with UJA-Federation of New York, which cares about Jews around the world and New Yorkers from all walks of life, responds to crises near and far, and shapes the Jewish future. This article was produced by the JTA Native Content Team.
Post-Jewish interest in active shooter training skyrocketed after the recent attacks first appeared on the Jewish Telegraph Agency.