Jewish communities must bolster security against antisemitic attacks - opinion

Jewish communities and facilities are frequently targets of antisemitic attacks but we don't have to be victims.

 A Memphis police cruiser. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A Memphis police cruiser.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Last week, an armed individual attempted to enter the Margolin Hebrew Academy in Memphis, Tennessee with the intention of shooting innocent people inside.

Too many times after an act of targeted violence, we hear “I never thought it could happen here.” 

But it can. Last Monday in Memphis, it almost did. But this story has a different ending. The shooter was unable to enter the building. He was identified within minutes. Then he was located and apprehended by law enforcement. These actions, together, saved innocent lives.

While some may attribute his failure to luck, we know better. This outcome was no accident. It was the result of years of planning and preparation – planning that every Jewish community should undertake to protect themselves and their organizations.

In 2018, the Memphis Jewish Federation partnered with the Secure Community Network (SCN) and, together, hired a full-time Community Security Director. Since then, the Memphis Jewish community and its many institutions, including Margolin Hebrew Academy, have worked together, training and preparing to mitigate attacks just like this one. The Memphis Jewish Federation and Margolin Hebrew Academy implemented the model SCN has built to create a proactive, protective shield over the Jewish community in North America.

Since 2018, the Security Director visited the Margolin campus nine times, conducting campus walkthroughs, threat and vulnerability assessments, security training, and grant consultations, which supported Margolin Hebrew Academy’s efforts to receive $150,000 in 2022 and an additional $150,000 in 2023 from the Department of Homeland Security Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP) to bolster their safety and security.

The federal NSGP funds were used to install access control on the aptly-named “man trap” – a series of doors that prevents visitors from entering a facility unless they’re approved to do so. That man trap prevented Monday’s shooter from entering the building properly.

The security improvements funded by NSGP also led to the installation of video cameras that captured images of the shooter, which were used almost immediately to identify and locate him after he fled the scene.

The Memphis skyline. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Memphis skyline. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Memphis’s full-time, professional Community Security Director simultaneously sent a “shelter in place” alert to all Jewish institutions in the Memphis area to prevent the shooter from pursuing additional targets upon fleeing the scene.

This will not be the last attack perpetrated against a school or a Jewish institution. Some 2% of the US population is Jewish, yet 58% of faith-based hate crimes target Jews. But just because we know an incident will occur, does not mean we are helpless.

Our institutions can be prepared, and that starts with implementing a comprehensive and thorough security initiative in the same way the Memphis Jewish Federation did.

Here are four things every community must do:

Get a security assessment. Developing a security strategy starts with an assessment of your facility and its vulnerabilities, and how to strengthen them. SCN and its national network of security professionals are available to provide these assessments.

Bolster physical security. Common elements of many physical security plans include panic buttons placed at key locations around the facility, automatically locking external doors, and bullet or impact-resistant glass. The Memphis shooter fired shots around the building, so it is important all facilities have a hardened exterior. Jewish facilities should also apply for Federal grants to support their physical security plans.

Additionally, it is necessary to provide facility diagrams to local law enforcement and develop a strong relationship with law enforcement. First responders must have fast access to study the inside of a facility. No one should wait until a crisis to learn a location.

Security train, and train again. Training for all community members is essential. It can never be one-and-done, and every facility throughout the United States should be trained. In Colleyville, Texas, Jeffrey Cohen, who was taken hostage, said after his escape, “The training from the Secure Community Network saved our lives – I am not speaking in hyperbole here.”

Our community is a target. But we don’t have to be victims. Preventing deadly attacks is possible and we must do more. Last week, Margolin Hebrew Academy and the Memphis Jewish community faced a true test of its planning and preparation. All Jewish facilities must learn from this event and commit to action. This time, we need not mourn, because preparation won.

The writer is the national director and CEO of the Secure Community Network, which runs the security program at the Margolin Hebrew Academy in Memphis.