When John Earnest allegedly opened fire on Chabad of Poway, California, on Saturday, he attacked a synagogue that had undergone active-shooter training with local law enforcement.
Congregant Lori Gilbert-Kaye was killed in the attack by the 19-year-old shooter, and three others were wounded.
While post-event assessments indicate that the shooter’s gun likely malfunctioned, reducing some of what could have been even greater devastation, reports also indicate that congregants acted effectively to rescue children and quickly exit the building.
This training likely saved lives.
When it comes to security, while there is no one-size-fits-all set of recommendations, there are best practices and strategies that can reduce vulnerability, explained Michael Masters, national director of the Secure Community Network (SCN), a national homeland security initiative, sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America and Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, that focuses on educating the Jewish community to potential threats.
So why, with what the ADL has marked as a 105% rise in the number of antisemitic assaults against US Jews, have so many Jewish organizations forgone implementing these best practices?
“We have a constant challenge of trying to balance people’s perception of being welcoming and open with safety and security,” Masters told The Jerusalem Post. “People often think that safety and security mean that you need to close down the building, that it needs to be a fortress. But that is just people’s perceptions.”
Masters said this perception likely comes from the way that Jewish organizations in Western Europe have been forced to secure their schools and synagogues with high walls, barbed wire and armed guards behind military blockades, in some instances.
“A lot of our European partners say they are happy to share how they do it,” said Masters. “We do not want our facilities in the US to look like that. We need to create a safe environment, without allowing the terrorists to win.
“Our institutions should not be soft targets,” he continued. “Houses of worship are strong places that symbolize our resilience and strength as a people, and they should reflect that.”
Masters said Jewish organizations should take a “holistic approach” to security, strengthening themselves physically, mentally and spiritually.
His message is similar to the advice that the Department of Homeland Security provided the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City in 2014, after a gunman opened fire at two Jewish facilities, killing three people. Following that incident, I accompanied DHS on multiple assessments of the facilities and wrote grant applications to secure needed funding to protect the city’s largest Jewish campus, which houses the community’s early childhood center, federation, day school, youth groups and sports and recreation facilities.
Based on speaking to Masters and SCN’s current and DHS’s 2014 recommendations, the following is a list of mostly low-cost, fast-to-implement security solutions that Jewish institutions should consider. They can be broken down into three categories: access, communication and training.
Following the attack on Saturday, Rabbi Mendel Goldstein, the son of Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, who was wounded in the attack, told the Post that the shooter had entered through the main doors of the facility, and some congregants were able to escape through alternate exits off the sanctuary, for example.
Those exits proved useful in this case, but according to SCN and DHS, access control can be essential for preventing and/or mitigating a live-shooter attack.
Limit the use of building entrances to one or as few as possible.
Adjust locking hardware on all other entrances so they cannot be opened from the outside without a key, proximity card or other device.
Mark the main entry to the facility and post signs on other entries redirecting visitors to the main entry. Signs should include arrows, maps or directions, not just the statement, “Visitors must report to the office.”
I recorded the following in my notes in 2014: “During the April 13 tragedy, hundreds of people were ‘locked down’ in unlocked rooms. If the shooter had been inside the building, all of these visitors would have been at risk.”
When we did our assessment, for example, we found that almost none of the rooms in a certain area had locks at all. In a situation like that, if a facility cannot afford to put locks on all the doors, a few rooms should be designated safe rooms and fixed. Then, those rooms should be clearly labeled.
For larger spaces, like the JCC social hall, we were instructed to investigate purchasing lockdown door magnets, which allow doors to stay locked but open easily during the day.
Classrooms, such as in an early childhood center or day school, should be able to lock from the inside.
Hang blinds on glass windows. If you are on lockdown, you don’t want the perpetrator to be able to see inside.
Place Mylar film over all windows and doors to the outside. The average person cannot even tell it is there, so it does not impact aesthetics. However, if installed properly, this can help ensure that the glass does not shatter and delay a shooter’s ability to enter the facility.
“The more layers of protection you have, the more time you have,” DHS advised.
A big part of being prepared is clearly communicating what to do in an emergency to all involved. This starts with basic signage.
Hang alongside your “what to do in the event of a fire” signs easily visible procedures to follow in the event of a lockdown or active-shooter attack.
Establish two-way communication with a central location for all offices, work spaces and classrooms.
Consider an intercom system or provide cellphones, two-way radios or portable duress alarms to staff, if there is no intercom system.
For larger facilities, install a panic or duress alarm at the reception desk or within the main office area to alert key staff.
Implement a system that allows teachers, counselors, etc. who are outside to hear if something is going on inside.
Communication with law enforcement authorities is also key.
SCN said organizations should develop a site plan that shows surrounding streets, primary and secondary access points, fire hydrants, and power, water, gas, and communications line locations, and provide this to the authorities, for the event of an emergency. Similarly, SCN recommends producing a reduced-size building floor plan, showing room names and numbers, evacuation routes, building entries and exits, designated areas of refuge, roof access points, and the locations of the public address system panel, intrusion alarm panel, fire alarm panel, sprinkler shutoff, main power control panel, main gas or oil shutoff, oil storage tanks, main water shutoff, main HVAC shutoff, emergency generator and fire hose boxes.
“Two minutes is a lifetime when you are talking about an active shooter, so all staff needs to be confident,” I jotted down in 2014.
Masters said this rings equally true today. He has personally visited and provided training for more than 60 Jewish facilities in the last year. SCN held conference calls and webinars for more than 10,000 people. Masters said that since Pittsburgh, SCN has had more than 1,000 requests for service.
SCN is working on developing a set of protocols in combination with the FBI and local law enforcement to ensure consistent training for schools, synagogues and JCCs.
• Educate children not to let strangers into the building.
• Empower teachers and staff to take charge when needed.
•Conduct drills, at least quarterly and ideally monthly.
“We know training saves lives,” Masters said. “The test is in the incidents.”
The Tree of Life synagogue underwent training eight weeks before it was attacked. After the event, the synagogue’s maintenance man, who was in the bathroom during the shooting, said he escaped through exit doors, which had been purposely made easier to exit in order to prepare for such a situation. The doors were adjusted on the advice of DHS experts. That advice may have saved lives by allowing congregants to escape.
Similarly, Masters said Pittsburgh’s Rabbi Jeffrey Myers had a cellular phone in his pocket on the day of the shooting, at the advice of SCN. Myers made the first 911 call with that cellphone within 90 seconds of the attack and directed police, which according to Masters helped allow them to respond as effectively as they did.
In 2017, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh hired Brad Orsini, a retired FBI agent, as a “community security director.” He trains with SCN, and between his hire and the Tree of Life attack, he had conducted more than 100 training sessions, which included teaching members of the community to be aware of signs of hate, how to evacuate, where to hide if evacuation is not possible, how to fight if there are no hiding places and, ultimately, how to treat the wounded.
“It’s very sad, isn’t it? We have to train congregants to be safe so they can pray,” Orsini said in an interview with The New York Times shortly after the Tree of Life attack.
Yisroel Goldstein mentioned several times how the training helped save lives.
“You do not usually rise to the occasion; you fall back to your level of training,” said Masters. “A training plan is a commitment to action.... We do not rely on miracles.”
He also said that when it comes to expensive protection, such as top security cameras or an armed guard, the latter of which can cost between $25 and $65 an hour, the synagogue or organization should know what it is buying.
With cameras, he said, ask what they cover and whether anyone is watching them. “You don’t want your cameras to become ‘documenters’ of an incident that occurred,” he said.
When hiring an armed guard, he recommends, use off-duty law enforcement or retired law enforcement that continues to meet certain qualifications within their state to effectively carry and use a firearm with proficiency.
“What you don’t want is a false sense of security,” Masters cautioned. “You cannot call an unarmed person security. You can call him a safety officer, a Walmart greeter, the first person who will get shot when a guy with a gun shows up.
“We stress that one individual is not a security plan,” Masters continued.
But he also said that our Jewish institutions must invest in security.
“If we don’t do this effectively and efficiently, and people question whether they should walk into our institutions, it will fundamentally change what being Jewish looks like in America today, tomorrow and for generations,” Masters told the Post, “and that is not something on which we should compromise.”
We must ask: What is the cost of not investing? said Masters. What is the price tag that you can put on the life of a member of the community, such as Gilbert-Kaye, who from the way she was eulogized must have contributed so much to Poway?
“We have faced great threats as a people in the past. We can face our adversaries today. But we have to come together and make a commitment.”