August 29, 2023

Preparation Is Key to Safe High Holidays

Last week, the Community Security Initiative (CSI) Team held its annual Town Hall addressing security planning for the High Holidays as part of Federation’s ongoing commitment to strengthen our synagogues, especially in response to rising antisemitism within the U.S.  

Attendees were reminded that racially motivated violent extremists, and other like-minded malicious actors, may view these holidays as an opportunity to perpetrate attacks due to the increase in gathering size at synagogues. And that preparation in planning, training, exercising, and physical target hardening of facilities are critical in keeping our communities safe during this time and always. Federation’s Chief Security Officer, Thomas ‘Chip’ Michaels, shared the CSI Team’s Security Pathway detailed the route to security preparedness, including: 1. creating and reviewing emergency operations plans; 2.applying for federal and state security grants; 3. participating in active threat and situational awareness training; and 4. conducting lockdown and emergency response drills.  

We were joined by Director of the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness (NJOHSP) Laurie Doran and one of her senior analysts, Alyssa Potter, who discussed the current threats facing the New Jersey and what the NJOHSP is doing to mitigate them. They explained that 2023 projections see violent extremists like white, racially motivated extremists as the greatest threat to New Jersey. Coupled with this, religious facilities remain an attractive target for both domestic and homegrown violent extremists, due to historically limited security, opposing ideological leanings, and gathering size. Among other programs, the NJOHSP’s Houses of Worship Program is designed to deliver strategies to increase security and preparedness in and around religious facilities by providing information, tools, resources, and contacts.   

Federation’s Director of Security Training Greg Drucks led synagogue leaders through a comprehensive High Holiday Security Checklist which encourages them to revisit safety and security plans and procedures and to train clergy, staff, and community members on how to effectively deal with emergency situations. They were advised to build relationships with local emergency services, do site risk assessments, ensure that sufficient medical personnel are on site and that medical equipment is in good working order and easily accessible, and test all safety devices and equipment before the holidays begin.  

Federation’s Security Grant Consultant Dorit Zimerman stressed the importance of physically fortifying synagogues against risks and that government grants are available to help with the costs and Federation is available to help synagogues with the application process. The Federal Grant continues to fund up to $150,000, and, this year, the state grant has increased in funding opportunities from $50,000 to $100,000. She encouraged all who are eligible to apply when this grant goes live in September.  

Finally, a new threat added to this year’s discussion is swatting, where hoax calls are made to police, claiming false attacks against houses of worship, leading to panic, disruption of services, and evacuations. A common thread among these incidents is the livestreaming of services. Best practices suggest that if you are going to steam your holiday services, keep the cameras focused on the bimah and not on the congregants.  

As your congregation prepares for the busy high holiday season, please feel free to contact your CSI Team with any security questions. 

Contact Thomas ‘Chip’ Michaels at [email protected] 

Contact Greg Drucks at [email protected] 

Contact Dorit Zimerman at [email protected]