Jewish leaders must prepare employees for physical attacks

For workers, the sense of physical security in the workplace comes from trust in leadership.

Police officers guard the Tree of Life synagogue following shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, US, October 27, 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS/JOHN ALTDORFER)
Police officers guard the Tree of Life synagogue following shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, US, October 27, 2018.
(photo credit: REUTERS/JOHN ALTDORFER)

New data shows that Jewish communal workers don’t always feel prepared to respond to a physical attack on their workplace and this feeling of unpreparedness relates to lower levels of trust they have in their leaders at work.

Jews are the most frequently targeted religious community in the United States for hate crimes, although thankfully the vast majority of these hate crimes are not violent. According to the ADL, there were 2,024 antisemitic incidents in 2020 and 327 of these occurred at Jewish institutions. Almost all were harassment or vandalism, while three of those 327 incidents at Jewish institutions were assaults.

It’s about trust in leadership

Even for three attacks – even one – is worth taking precautions to prevent. But there are reasons even beyond the real-but-rare possibility of physical attacks for taking employee feelings of security seriously.

Every year, Leading Edge (my organization, which empowers Jewish organizations to improve their leadership, talent and culture) conducts the Employee Experience Survey, open to any Jewish nonprofit that wants to improve their team’s work experience. This year, we heard from more than 12,000 employees at 257 Jewish organizations in North America.

And for the first time, in 2022, we asked employees who don’t work remotely about their sense of physical security preparedness in the workplace. The most important finding about security from our data this year is that security preparedness isn’t just about security; it’s about trust in leadership.

STANDING GUARD ahead of a solidarity gathering after five people were stabbed at a Hanukkah party in Monsey, New York, December 2019 (credit: AMR ALFIKY/ REUTERS)STANDING GUARD ahead of a solidarity gathering after five people were stabbed at a Hanukkah party in Monsey, New York, December 2019 (credit: AMR ALFIKY/ REUTERS)

We asked employees who work outside of their homes for at least part of the week about physical security. Most (84%) said their organization has a plan for how to respond to a physical security threat and most (72%) agreed that “I feel prepared to act if faced with a physical security threat.” This is a good starting place for the field but there is room for growth. In particular, some employees don’t know if their organization has a plan if faced with a security threat. There are also some employees who are aware that their organization has a plan but they personally do not feel prepared to act in the event of a security threat.

Smaller organizations feel less prepared

Compared with employees who do feel prepared to act in the event of a security threat, employees who do not feel prepared to act are much less likely to express confidence in their organization’s leaders. They are much less likely to agree that their leaders will respond appropriately to reports of sexual harassment or discrimination. And they are much less likely to agree that their leaders communicate well and keep them informed. The differences between these two groups are large: they represent 17 to 20 percentage-point gaps in the likelihood of agreeing with these statements.

WHERE ARE these employees who feel less prepared to act in the event of a security threat? They are in many places and types of organizations, but they are disproportionately represented at smaller organizations (especially teams of 10 or less); in the Northeastern US and Canada; and in certain types of Jewish nonprofits, namely: foundations, community relations organizations, national/umbrella organizations and especially social justice/advocacy organizations.

Among social justice/advocacy employees, it’s an outright majority of in-person workers who do not feel prepared to act in the event of a security threat. In all these cases, the only employees who were asked this question were those who work in person every day; remote workers were not asked.

More Jewish organizations and more of their leaders need to take physical security seriously, not only as a mandate to keep their teams physically safe (which is important, even when the likelihood of an attack is relatively low) but also as a way of demonstrating care and concern for their teams. Threats to the Jewish community are just as real emotionally and psychologically as they are physically and actions to address those threats should be as holistic as the threats themselves.

We remember when in January 2022 a hostage situation unfolded in Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. Many Jews around the world felt personally implicated and in the days that followed, some employees at visibly Jewish organizations must have wondered: Could we be next? The Colleyville crisis ended with all the hostages alive, thank God, but it also called to mind other deadly attacks on synagogues in recent years in Pittsburgh, Poway and Monsey. These vicious attacks provoked feelings not only of grief and outrage but also of vulnerability for Jews and for non-Jewish people whose work and lives intersect with the Jewish community.

HOWARD KAYE holds daughter Hannah Jacqueline Kaye at the funeral for their wife and mother Lori Gilbert- Kaye on April 29, the sole fatality of the shooting at Congregation Chabad synagogue in Poway, north of San Diego. Speaking at front is Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, who is said to have been shielded  (credit: REUTERS)HOWARD KAYE holds daughter Hannah Jacqueline Kaye at the funeral for their wife and mother Lori Gilbert- Kaye on April 29, the sole fatality of the shooting at Congregation Chabad synagogue in Poway, north of San Diego. Speaking at front is Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, who is said to have been shielded (credit: REUTERS)

Leaders of Jewish organizations, especially those with in-person workspaces that are visibly Jewish, have an opportunity to build trust by paying more attention to employee perceptions of safety. That means making people actually safer and making sure that people feel safer, including knowing exactly what they should do, personally, in the event of an attack.

In Hebrew, the word bitachon can mean both security and trust. When employees see that their organizations value, protect and empower them with the bitachon of physical security, they are much more likely to feel the bitachon of trust, as well.

The writer is the senior director of Data Strategy at Leading Edge. Access the Employee Experience Survey report at leadingedge.org/survey2022.