Synagogues need to take responsibility for their security, said retired New York Police Department detective Mordecai Dzikansky, who served as the NYPD’s liaison with the Israeli police in the aftermath of 9/11.
“If you are relying solely on police you’re leaving yourself vulnerable,” Dzikansky said in an interview.
Dzikansky spoke with the Jewish Standard after taking part in a webinar organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York which aimed to inform synagogue leaders across the country about security procedures and safety approaching the High Holy Days.
The webinar is available for viewing at http://bit.ly/js-sec.
Other presenters included Douglas Smith, who is the assistant secretary for the private sector of the Department of Homeland Security, and David Pollock, associate executive director of the New York JCRC.
“The fact that more people than usual go to synagogues at the High Holy Days makes synagogues especially attractive targets to terrorists at that time,” said Pollack.
Over 60 participants from over 55 congregations tuned in to the webinar, according to Judah Isaacs, director of community engagement for the Orthodox Union, which publicized the webinar.
“As we approach High Holy Days we want to be sure everyone is vigilant,” Isaacs said. “The OU has an initiative we call ‘Safe Homes, Safe Schools, Safe Shuls.’ Safety is the number one concern for us. We take care of our own selves and institutions.”
Dzikansky recommended that synagogues hire off-duty police to stand out front in uniform and assist synagogue leaders in searching unfamiliar people, he said.
“[Ideally] you have private security and a member of the congregation there to streamline situations so you don’t waste time on people you know,” he said. “You can be friendly, you can do it with a smile, but do not let anyone [unfamiliar] into the building without questioning and searching them.”
In the webinar, Pollock stated, “Under U.S. law, you can regulate who can come in and out of your synagogue. If someone seems suspicious, you can refuse them entry.”
In the absence of professional security, Dzikansky recommends synagogues station members of the congregation out front on their own. It is legal and important for synagogue members to deny entry to anyone suspicious who will not submit to having his or her belongings searched, Dzikansky said.
Attention also should be paid to unusual objects, or unknown cars, in the vicinity, and congregants should immediately notify police about anything suspicious. Synagogue leaders and other members should be briefed on the location of charged cell phones “in even the most Orthodox shul” and immediately call police in case of emergency or anything suspicious.
He added that most terrorists do surveillance and pick a target based on perceived vulnerability.
“It is very critical that you look like a hard target when you have individuals approaching your facility and doing surveillance,” he said.
In the webinar, one participant asked whether synagogues should allow worshipers who are also trained security personnel or law enforcement officers to bring their weapons to shul. Dzikansky said he would not categorically oppose allowing members who are licensed to carry concealed weapons to bring their weapons to synagogue. He cautioned, however, that they should be discreet and other members should not be aware they are armed.
Other topics raised in the webinar included the value of establishing a plan for synagogue evacuation in case of an emergency and making congregants aware of all exits to facilitate emergency evacuation.