Synagogue Security in the US: We combat the fear through training

With synagogue shootings and hate crimes on the rise across the US, groups like the Secure Community Network are preparing American Jews to face danger head-on.

July 27, 2019 20:44

Secure Community Network: The official safety and security organization of JFNA

Secure Community Network: The official safety and security organization of JFNA

Mark Jardina has a full schedule. On a recent morning, he visited a synagogue to advise how to improve its security, and the next day he was set to meet a large group of Jews in Maryland for an active shooter training. He started his job as the regional security director for the Greater Washington region at the Secure Community Network (SCN) some four months ago.

Since then, he estimates that he trained at least 850 people from more than 80 Jewish institutions on how to enhance their security.

“There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t get a phone call or an email for some level of assistance from the community,” he told the Magazine in an interview in Washington. “Organizations that maybe have never reached out before are reaching out now. There’s a lot of hunger, and it’s great.”

But training is only one aspect of his job. Part of his position is to provide threat and vulnerability assessments of organizations that will help them obtain grants and build a  security culture. He says he has advised dozens of institutions on how to do so.
Before joining SCN, Jardina served eight years as a US Marine.

“I’ve worked everything from counterintelligence to active threats, law enforcement, and counter-terrorism,” he told the Magazine. “I then worked with the State Department for seven years [advising] embassies all around the world and gave some consulting for international organizations.”

Today, as the regional DC director, he is in charge of some 350 institutions in Washington, Maryland and Virginia that serve about 300,000 people.

The Secure Community Network has allowed the Magazine to listen in on a crash course, with the same content that these organizations receive daily. The training includes both active shooter training, and practicing first aid, including and CPR.

“We combat the fear and emotion through training and education,” Jardina said.

“Training is one aspect of my work,” he explained. “It’s preparation, it’s prevention and it’s response preparedness. Yes, training is a huge part of that – to make sure organizations and individuals know how to respond in an active threat situation. But it’s also about making sure that the organization is preparing to adjust to this new environment. It’s a terrible thing that this is the security environment that we live in, but it is. And that’s a reality. Some 20 or 30 years ago, that may not have been the case, and maybe we could have buildings without alarms and synagogues without police. But that’s not today. I feel the absolute need to make sure that I am preparing my community as well as possible.”

The Secure Community Network was established in 2004 as the first national nonprofit organization exclusively dedicated to homeland security initiatives on behalf of the American Jewish community. In 2009, SCN was recognized by the US Department of Homeland Security as a national model for information sharing and faith-based homeland security initiatives.

The idea behind it, as Jardina explains, is first and foremost to teach people in synagogues to have a script of what to do if a shooter comes. It starts with remote buttons that could put the synagogue in lockdown before the shooter makes his way into the shul, in the event that someone notices the offender outside and notices his attempt to enter the building.

A central part of the training is to know where the nearest exit is at any given moment. Another primary motive in training is how to control the situation under stress. That’s the reason SCN recommends that each attendee in a synagogue have his or her own “script” of what to do if a shooter makes it inside the synagogue. One thing that Jardina does not recommend doing is to play dead.
“This is a lack of action,” he says.

In general, his best advice for a situation of an active shooter is to run away and to try to use different exits so people could potentially leave faster. If leaving is not an option, the training calls for hiding or avoiding the attacker. The last option would be to fight back.
But if you expected some Krav Maga training, this is not the idea here. As Jardina explains, fighting or shooting the terrorist should be last resort.

“The reason that we don’t do that, and we may talk briefly about effective tactics when it comes to fighting, but to teach someone how to fight, it’s got to be something that’s repeated,” he said. “And it has to be ingrained in their practice. It has to be something that they practice and practice and practice to become efficient at it.”

He says that in some cases, fighting might be the only option. But that shouldn’t be the focus of training for thousands of people.

“When we talk about the fighting aspect, we talk about what that level of commitment mentally looks like,” he said. “And if you move into a fight, it is not a movie theater. It is not a punch in exchange. It’s not a boxing match. It is a fight for your life. And if you see someone fighting and you can mentally and emotionally get into it, shift your actions, get into that fight.”

“If we focus too much on the actual tactics around fighting, and where to grab and where to move and how to throw somebody, it moves away from all of the other tactics to survive,” he continued.

“Sometimes, the best offense, the best chance of survival, is the defense,” Jardina said. “And if that means avoiding the attacker or denying the attacker access to you, that’s going to be a survival tactic. If you look at the rabbi from Poway, and how he was able to revert to his training and save the lives of children and get out of the building, that’s part of this training here. That was the training that they received.”

He added that fighting is a perishable skill, and that’s the main reason he would not recommend it to someone who is not highly trained to engage in a fight.

“Take a boxer that was good three years ago and have him not box or do anything for the last three years, and he’s not going to be as an effective boxer as he was three years ago,” Jardina said. “So, unless people are willing to train daily and dedicate portions of their lives to that, which is great, it’s fantastic, but we know we’re not going to get whole congregations to be able to do that. So, we’d like to focus on the national standards and tactics that have been proven to help survive.”

For the same reason, the SCN training does not include tactical training on weapons.

“That may be a direction for the future, but from a weapons standpoint, it’s very similar to that of hand-to-hand,” he said. “If you train on a single silhouette target and you spend three hours and get concealed weapons permit, that’s not enough to be able to know how to draw and use that firearm in a chaotic situation where a live event is happening. That’s not enough. Police, SWAT, military, we train for days and days and hours to be able to be effective in that situation. I don’t recommend that organizations go out and spend three hours and get a concealed weapons permit [carry] that weapon. It’s not an effective tactic.”

“As a matter of fact,” he said, “it could probably cost lives in that situation, in my opinion. If your shul has 300 members and you sit on the far end of the congregation, and there are 150 to 200 people between you and the front door and you’ve never trained tactically, and all you’ve ever had in those three hours of training on a single stationary, single silhouette target. To me, that doesn’t make you an effective defense of the organization. It actually makes you liability because there are too many people between you and the shooter. They’re obviously not trained to shoot through a crowd, so it becomes a little bit more of a liability.”

“It’s not about having a gun in the room,” he added. “It’s about having the right gun in the room. If there is a weapon in the room, if there is a firearm present, it needs to be the right firearm [and someone] that’s tactically trained and tactically proficient and able to employ that firearm in the line of duty. To me, that’s the only right weapon in the room. For me, that’s the police and federal law enforcement – people that train on this and are responsible for that same approach every day of their lives, whether or not they’re in shul.”

The SCN approach is bottom-up. First, to train individuals, and then to work with the Jewish institutions on how to improve their security system, how to apply for grants and how to spread first aid kits wisely in different locations in the shul.

Standardization is key

“Without question, we’ve seen an increase in demand,” says Michael Masters, national director and CEO of SCN in an interview with the Magazine. “I got 1,400 requests for service since Pittsburgh, which is a significant increase. We see a dramatic increase, and we are working systematically to meet that demand.”

According to Masters, as of today, 45 community security directors are employed by federations or at SCN directly in communities around the country. In any conversation with the people at SCN, the same word is repeating over and over again: standardization.

“Just like we have an Iron Dome missile defense system in Israel, we’re creating that security shield here in the United States, but it means that we need to have that done consistently,” said Masters. “It doesn’t help if my kids at the JCC have one security protocol and procedure, the synagogue has another and the day camp has as a third, we’ve got to train so that people can use this information during an event.”

“That is critical, particularly because we have worked to create a comprehensive, consistent, best practice-oriented approach to safety and security within our community,” he said. “We serve as the official liaison with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. Our operations center and duty desk every day are receiving and interacting and engaging on intelligence and information threats and incidents across our community, coordinating with law enforcement.”

He told the Magazine that SCN comprises former military law enforcement, homeland security and national security experts that work as a nonprofit on behalf of the community.

“We’re not a group of private consultants that are looking to make a profit, and we’re not a group of volunteers, as well-intentioned as many are, that are doing this in our spare time,” Masters said. “Everything from film to cameras so that organizations don’t have to waste money, paying private consultants, or guessing at what they should implement.”

Masters added that SCN serves as the official safety and security organization on behalf of the system the Jewish federations of North America: “The JFNA [Jewish Federations of North America], as well as the 146 federations and the 50 partners of the conference of presidents of major American Jewish organizations,” he said.

“We also work on behalf of 300 independent communities. That’s well over 90% of the organized Jewish community in the United States.”

Self-defense training in rural Pennsylvania

Other institutions and individuals prefer to take a different approach and seeking tactical training. One of the private locations that offer that kind of training is Cherev Gidon in rural Pennsylvania.

Yonatan Shtern is the owner and lead instructor, and he tells the Magazine that his mission is to teach Jewish people to defend themselves. He grew up in Kiryat Arba, served in the Netzach Yehuda (Nachal ultra-Orthodox) Brigade, and later volunteered in the police.

Now, he is bringing some Israeli tactics to his instructions.

“I came to America after the army and after studying counter-terrorism in IDC Herzliya and I saw a need for tactical Israeli defensive firearm skills,” he said. “I had a background in this, and I saw the opportunity to do something that would provide the kind of skills we have in Israel – defensive firearms training skills for the American Jewish population.”

“And so I came up with the idea of opening a school, and it didn’t happen overnight,” he said. “It took some time before for the ideas to become a reality. I started originally training people in California and New York. I got certified as an NRA-certified firearm instructor and as an NRA-certified range safety officer.”

Shtern offers a different approach and calls to try and stop the offender as soon as possible. “The first thing you should do is immediately end the attack,” he says. “That needs to be your number one priority. Obviously, you need to get trained beforehand to be able to do that. And that’s what we do. That’s the kind of training that we provide people; the active shooter training is so that people will be able to do that. Obviously, you’re not going to take someone who never fired a gun before and say, ‘you need to go and engage in an active shooter.’ Of course not. That’s why people come to us. And that’s the kind of training we’re giving people so that they’ll be able to do that.”

The day starts with some general knowledge about Israeli weapons, such as the Galil and the Uzi, followed by detailed instruction on how to use a gun. Eight people attended his course that day, from different locations and backgrounds, from people in their mid-20s to people in their early 70s.

Aaron Soowal, a 69-year-old retired salesperson from Pennsylvania, told the Magazine that just a few years ago, he could not imagine that he would need to renew his concealed weapon permit.

“I had permit 35 years ago,” he said. “It was my business. I was carrying cash. It was for personal security. The week after Pittsburgh, I walked into our county sheriff’s department to apply for a concealed carry permit.”

He told the Magazine that four or five other people from his synagogue are planning to take the same instruction soon.
“I don’t want ever to have that use it, but I think it’s important to know,” he said.

“I would like to think that it can’t happen in our shul, but it would be stupid of me to presume that it won’t,” he continued. “We’re not big. We’re 275 families. But that could make us a soft target. It’s inevitable that there are going to be more attacks on Jews and synagogues, and I don’t want to sit idly by. If something happens in my synagogue, I want to be able to do something about it.”

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