It’s time for synagogues and other Jewish institutions to dust off their security plans and see if they need updating.
That’s the message from Tim Torell, director of Jewish community security at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, in the wake of the hostage-taking at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, last Shabbat.
“And if they don’t have one, they need to create one.”
Mr. Torell is new on the job; he started at the beginning of December. But the American Jewish community’s security infrastructure is at this point well established.
That infrastructure was highlighted in reports from Colleyville that Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and his two fellow hostages were able to escape because Rabbi Cytron-Walker threw a chair at Malik Faisal Akram. He took that action based on security training he had received from the Secure Community Network and other Jewish agencies.
The Secure Community Network was founded by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in 2004 to address the American Jewish community’s security concerns.
And last Saturday morning, the Secure Community Network provided real-time updates to Jewish communal professionals across the country — among them Mr. Torell and Jason Shames, the federation’s CEO.
Those updates let Mr. Torell reach out to local law enforcement and advise them “to employ heightened awareness, to increase their patrols, to use heightened awareness for anything that looks suspicious,” he said.
At the same time, he was getting information from the intelligence division of the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office. “Sometimes they get information before other agencies do,” he said.
With the emergency over, the federation is continuing its work in helping local synagogues, day schools, and other Jewish institutions prepare for the worst.
On Tuesday, it offered a webinar for community institutions, featuring Mr. Torell and Mr. Shames, as well as William Stallone from the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office.
In the coming weeks, Mr. Torell hopes to meet with all of the area’s synagogues, day schools, and other Jewish institutions to discuss security.
“I’ve made a number of site visits already,” he said.
He’s available to help synagogues with their security plans — and with their training for conflict de-escalation, active shooter response, and stop-the-bleeding emergency first aid.
“After the Pittsburgh attack, the people said that it could have been a lot worse if not for their training,” Mr. Torell said. “You need to get your staff up to date with these trainings.”
Also on the should-do list: Test your existing security systems. “Cameras, door locks, panic buttons — anything you would use in case of an emergency,” he said.
“You should have the floor plans of your facilities available remotely, so you can give remote access to law enforcement. You should be able to give law enforcement access to your camera system remotely. So if an incident occurs and you have a hostage situation like we did on Saturday, the law enforcement command center can pull the floor plans up, and between the cameras and the floor plans, it’s like they know the facility like the back of their hands.”
“At this point, every synagogue should pick up the phone and call Tim and make an appointment with him,” Naomi Knopf, the federation’s chief of staff, said. “He will be able to give guidance on what they’re missing and what they need to do to create a more robust plan.”
Mr. Torell also can help them apply for homeland security grants to upgrade their facilities.
Mr. Torell, a long-time veteran of the Englewood police department, strongly believes that institutions should reach out to their local police departments.
“We encourage the Jewish facilities to invite law enforcement into their facilities,” he said. “I was just dealing with a synagogue in northern Bergen County, who told me that they had their local law enforcement SWAT teams trained in active shooter procedures in their synagogue. We want that because floor plans are great, but when you have the actual teams go hands-on in the facilities and train in it, it makes a bigger impression.”
So how frightened should people be about going to synagogue services?
“There’s this gentle balance,” Ms. Knopf said. “Shabbat is a time for peace. It’s a time to take a break, a time to relax. We certainly want that spirit and energy to continue. But people have to be aware, people have to keep their eyes open and see what is going on around them. That’s unfortunately the world we’re living in.
“We can give the synagogues and schools and agencies information and make them smarter and more aware. Hopefully they’ll never have to deal with these situations, but if God forbid they do, they’ll be able to handle them as best as possible.”
“Most of our synagogues and schools have some form of security,” Mr. Torell said. “The plan is to stay in touch with them and make sure they keep their training at the best-practice level.
“Just the presence of security and the fact that members of the congregation know their security teams are working with Federation and local law enforcement should give them some comfort,” he said.