Neighborhood watch organizations are nothing new, but a group of security professionals five years ago decided to localize the idea even more by creating Community Security Service, a volunteer organization that trains members of Jewish organizations in vigilance.
“Law enforcement can’t do everything on their own and we have the ability to help them,” said Joshua Glice, CSS’s director of synagogue and school operations . “It’s very important that the community try to help. Nobody will know the members of a congregation as well as the congregants themselves.”
New York-based CSS is a non-profit, volunteer-run organization dedicated to providing volunteers with the skills they need to watch for anything out of the ordinary and report it to proper authorities, according to Glice. The organization does not, he emphasized, endorse any kind of vigilantism; its volunteers are instructed to immediately inform the police of any suspicious activity.
“Our goal is to train members of the congregation to be the extra eyes and ears of law enforcement,” he said.
Most criminals conduct some kind of surveillance before a crime, Glice said, checking for cameras, testing to see if anybody notices them, or just scoping out an institution’s security. That is what the CSS volunteers are trained to look for, he said.
“We have our members always looking out for people trying to test security or find out information about the security, and train them how to report that back to police and the network,” he said.
CSS is operating in more than a dozen Bergen County synagogues, including Ahavath Torah in Englewood and Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck, both Orthodox congregations (CSS serves all streams). Discussions are underway with at least a dozen other institutions, Glice said, and it is involved with many more throughout the tri-state.
“The more synagogues network, the better it works out for everyone,” Glice said. “It really helps give a leg up to our ability to deal with potential threats, in a legal and safe manner that’s responsible and able to help the police. With any crime, it’s the whole ‘See something, say something’ campaign.”
All member organizations become part of an informational network that quickly shares security alerts and tips. Eli Davidovics, head of the security committee at Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck, praised the organizational information sharing that CSS created.
“Information flows in all directors,” he said. “If you have a threat at one synagogue and it doesn’t get to another, that’s a failure of the community.”
About a year ago, Davidovics invited CSS to present to the board, which then created Davidovics’ security position. The synagogue’s CSS team has been operational since the High Holy Days.
“It’s dramatically increased the awareness of what to look for – suspicious people and activities,” Davidovics said. “We have very active members doing their thing to protect the shul in a more active manner.”
In addition to creating a visible deterrence, the CSS teams have also provided comfort to congregants.
“They have created a sense of security around the synagogue, especially around the time of services,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Ahavath Torah, which has been involved with CSS for about three years.
Volunteers don earpieces and carry walkie-talkies, which could be problematic for shomer-Shabbat congregants, but, Glice said, the organization is quick to explain security needs and get the local rabbi’s permission first.
“The question became how do you balance the possibility of danger with the possibility of setting aside those [religious] laws,” Goldin said. “We came to the conclusion that we would allow certain things.”
While the volunteers do carry walkie-talkies, a police officer will test them each Shabbat first so that the shomer-Shabbat volunteers use them only when they have to.
Interest in the organization tends to spike when there are tangible threats to the Jewish community, such as the latest string of anti-Semitic attacks in Bergen County, according to Glice. Sgt. Scott Tesser, of Teaneck’s Community Policing Squad, praised groups such as CSS for promoting vigilance. The only caveat, he said, was that sometimes community volunteers focus too much on watching what is happening on the street in front of them that they do not pay serious attention to what is happening beside them or behind them.
“They should be looking all around them,” he said.
Because of its all-volunteer staff, CSS is focusing solely on the tri-state area for now, but hopes to grow in the future, Glice said. Its services are available to any type of Jewish organization – communal organizations, synagogues, Hebrew schools, or day schools – of any stream, he said.
“Bad guys really don’t care about your politics, how religious you are,” Glice said. “Their No. 1 concern is to hurt the Jewish community, so our No. 1 concern is to protect the Jewish community, regardless of their background.”