May 30, 2023

With Watchful Eyes, a Nationwide Network Tracks Antisemitic Threats

The mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh led to arguably the most ambitious effort ever undertaken to protect Jewish institutions in America.

Reporting from Chicago, May 29, 2023
Photo: Jamie Kelter Davis for The New York Times

In a dimly lit conference room on an upper floor of a Chicago mid-rise, an intricately detailed snapshot of American peril is being taken, minute by unsettling minute.

Reports from around the country — of gunshots, bomb threats, menacing antisemitic posts — flash across more than a dozen screens. A half-dozen analysts with backgrounds in the military or private intelligence are watching them, ready to alert any one of thousands of synagogues, community centers or day schools that appear to be at risk. Often, the analysts are the first to call.

This is the headquarters of the Secure Community Network, the closest thing to an official security agency for American Jewish institutions. There are other organizations that specialize in security for Jewish facilities, but none as broad as this group, which was created by the Jewish Federations of North America after 9/11. It has grown exponentially over the past five years, from a small office with a staff of five to a national organization with 75 employees stationed around the country.

What prompted its rapid expansion was the murder of 11 worshipers from three congregations by a hate-spouting gunman at the Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018, the deadliest antisemitic attack in American history.

The trial for the gunman, scheduled to begin on Tuesday at the federal courthouse in Pittsburgh, is taking place in a country that will be less shocked by any revelations than it might have been five years ago, given the prevalence now of mass shootings and incidents of antisemitism. The White House last week announced what it called the first-ever national strategy to counter antisemitism, involving multiple agencies and focusing on training and prevention.

But if Jews in America are less surprised by such incidents now, they have become, by grim necessity, far more vigilant.

The mass shooting in Pittsburgh was followed by arguably the most ambitious and comprehensive effort ever taken to protect Jewish life in the United States. In addition to bringing in more than $100 million dollars in federal grants to local Jewish organizations, the Jewish Federations of North America has raised $62 million with the ultimate goal of securing “every single Jewish community” on the continent.

There are now 93 Jewish Federations with full-time security directors, a more than fourfold increase over the past five years.