At US retreat, volunteer guards train to protect synagogues in post-Oct. 7 world

‘Don’t stand like a mezuzah at the door’: Demand for instruction rises sharply following Hamas attack; drills adapted to include counter-protest tactics

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: CSS has trained over 4,000 volunteers across the country to protect Jewish organizations. (Courtesy of CSS/via JTA)
Illustrative: CSS has trained over 4,000 volunteers across the country to protect Jewish organizations. (Courtesy of CSS/via JTA)

New York Jewish Week via JTA – As two guards walked out of their synagogue to greet a group of congregants on a Saturday morning, one spotted a college-age student walking by wearing a backpack and stopped to chat.

Then a protest erupted on the sidewalk. “Free, free Palestine!” a handful of protesters shouted. Several of the congregants approached the protesters, shouting “Get out of here!”

The two guards – a middle-aged woman and a younger man – stepped between the two groups to separate them, but matters began to escalate. The pro-Palestinian demonstrators hurled stones at the counter-protesters, then a knife-wielding attacker rushed toward the crowd and stabbed one of the guards.

The other guard and several congregants tackled the assailant, disarmed him and called the police.

While this incident might seem plausible to many, it didn’t actually happen. It was a staged scenario at a retreat this week in Pennsylvania, meant to train volunteer synagogue guards to make decisions under pressure. The knife was rubber, the suspicious student and protesters were other guards-in-training, and the stones were balls of fabric.

The annual gathering is run by the Community Security Service (CSS), which trains members of hundreds of synagogues to guard their congregations, and has taken place twice before. This year, following October 7, CSS is placing more of a focus on countering anti-Israel and Islamist demonstrators, and on responding to protest and harassment in addition to violent attacks. The group has also seen significant growth in the past seven months.

File: Hoboken Police officers stand watch outside the United Synagogue of Hoboken, Nov. 3, 2022, in Hoboken, New Jersey. (AP Photo/Ryan Kryska, File)

“The anti-Israel protests have created additional layers of complexity,” Richard Priem, the interim director of CSS, told the New York Jewish Week, which was granted exclusive access to the three-day retreat. “Our volunteers need to adapt and be prepared to deal with intense situations that are not necessarily always a violent threat but have more to do with intimidation and harassment,” said Priem, adding that guards were tasked with “making sure that they can still secure Jewish life so everything continues.”

As law enforcement and Jewish groups have documented a spike in antisemitism since October 7, CSS has seen demand for its services increase. Ahead of the Hamas attack, around 300 synagogues were part of the CSS network; now there are more than 400. The group is also expanding a program that dispatches security volunteers to Jewish community events in the tri-state area: teams will be launched in Los Angeles and Miami in addition to the ones in New York City and Washington, DC.

Illustrative: The Community Security Service, a Jewish nonprofit founded in 2007, has trained 4,000 volunteer security guards for synagogues, teaching them how to spot and respond to threats. (Courtesy of CSS via JTA)

That follows an earlier jump after the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and violent attacks on Jewish institutions in 2019. In the past four years, CSS’s staff has grown from two to 18, and the number of volunteers from a few hundred to around 4,000. The organization is funded by donations, and in 2022, tax filings showed the New York City-based group had $5 million in revenue.

Jonathan, 25, a volunteer from a Manhattan synagogue, said his community had started organizing security volunteers after October 7 and joined CSS in January. The synagogue felt vulnerable after the Hamas invasion of Israel, he said.

“We were discussing it for a while. It wasn’t until after October 7 that enough people said, ‘OK, let’s make this happen,’” said Jonathan, who gave only his first name per the policy of the retreat, which also kept names of synagogues off the record due to security concerns.

File: People walk outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, July 13, 2023. (AP/Gene J. Puskar)

Many synagogues rely on private security or off-duty police officers to guard their entrances. Some rely on hired guards and volunteers. Jonathan said his synagogue chose to train its members in part because it was inspired by stories of civilian Israelis who saved others during Hamas’s invasion of Israel, which targeted communities that were largely surrounded by fences and guard posts.

“Much of the October 7 attack was against communities that were ‘secure,’” he said.

Some synagogues turn to volunteers because hiring security is too expensive, and government security grants — which can be onerous to obtain — offer only limited funding for guards.

CSS also makes the case that volunteers are familiar with the membership of their synagogue and its culture, so are more able to spot outsiders or suspicious behaviors. In New York, strict laws regulate police interactions with the public, such as laws barring any kind of profiling, rules that do not apply to volunteers.

Illustrative: A security guard stands at the entrance of the Etz Jacob Congregation/Ohel Chana High School building, February 15, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Jonathan, the volunteer from Manhattan, said the team at his synagogue had been working in shifts in recent months, with team members performing security sweeps and monitoring for threats inside and outside the building.

“I feel like it’s my responsibility, in that I shouldn’t have to outsource my security to other people,” he said. “Why should someone else have to step up to protect my synagogue?”

Around 75 volunteers came to the retreat from across the country — with around half coming from the tri-state area. The setting was a far cry from the city, though: It was held on the grounds of a Jewish center in verdant, rural Pennsylvania. A guard checked vehicles at the entrance and deer scrambled across the driveway just beyond the gate.

The group skewed middle-aged and older, male and Orthodox, and included doctors, lawyers and one former NFL Super Bowl champion. The synagogues represented ranged from Reconstructionist to Orthodox congregations.

Illustrative: A worshiper walks past a Pittsburgh Police officer and a private security guard outside the main entrance of the Beth Shalom synagogue after attending a Shabbat morning service, November 3, 2018, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

CSS sends trainers to synagogues across the United States to drill them in security protocol, but the retreat provided more advanced training to experienced guards and volunteers in leadership roles. Participants also heard from experts from Jewish communities abroad, in addition to officials from the Department of Homeland Security and former NYPD officers. Other instructors were Israeli consultants based in the US.

Participants trained in security measures including sweeping a synagogue for threats, questioning suspicious individuals, the Israeli martial art Krav Maga and reacting to a thrown explosive. They also trained on how to lock down buildings and learned about tactics to counter aggressive protesters.

“This is a higher-level, more experienced people, people with more potential. It helps grow the training capacity and capability,” said Michael, a volunteer and CSS team leader at a synagogue in Westchester who has 12 years of experience. Michael, attending the retreat for the third time, monitored his synagogue’s security cameras through an app on his phone while at the retreat, saying he had been on “constant alert” since October 7.

Instructors traveled to the retreat from Jewish communities in the United Kingdom, Australia and South Africa, countries with smaller Jewish communities that have made use of a volunteer security model for decades, and like the US, have seen a wave of pro-Palestinian protests that occasionally veer into antisemitic harassment and, more rarely, violence.

While anti-Israel protests in New York have not seen any deadly violence or severe beatings of Jews — a scourge of demonstrations against the 2021 Gaza war — they have still subjected some synagogue-goers to intimidation and harassment, sparking fears among congregants.

Synagogues across the US have also been targeted with a rash of fake bomb threats.

But despite the protests, deadly violence is still seen as more of a threat from the far-right, Priem said — echoing the longstanding assessments of watchdogs like the Anti-Defamation League, which partners with CSS. The Tree of Life shooter, for example, was a right-wing extremist motivated by the antisemitic “great replacement” conspiracy theory, which accuses Jews of diluting Western countries’ white population by inundating them with immigrants.

“The actual attacks, terror — there’s still more of those that have happened from the white supremacist angle,” Priem said, noting that CSS has always been mindful of threats from radical Islamists even if they were not the group’s focus.

Priem added that the group was not changing its core training, but had taken account of anti-Israel protests by adding layers to its regimen, such as the stone-throwing and stabbing scenario that had been staged at the Pennsylvania retreat.

According to Priem, that scenario was an example of the volunteers’ two-pronged training to both keep congregants safe and separate them from protesters.

“Our goal is always to de-escalate and prevent,” said Priem.

Illustrative: A hand-drawn swastika is seen on the front of Union Station near the Capitol in Washington, January 28, 2022. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

The program, and the partnerships between the different security groups, have notched several successes in recent years. In 2022, a CSS volunteer noticed a threatening post on social media. CSS relayed the threat to the Community Security Initiative, a New York City-based Jewish security agency, which sent the information to police, who made two arrests and found a knife, a handgun and a Nazi armband with the suspects.

In 2021, volunteers in the Bronx pursued and snapped a photo of a suspect who had vandalized several Jewish institutions in the area. The vandal was later arrested.

In December, volunteer guards in Washington, DC, blocked an assailant who attempted to attack congregants with a foul-smelling spray while shouting “Gas the Jews.”

Volunteers at the retreat underwent scenario training to prepare them for similar situations.

An Israeli consultant told the volunteers to be proactive while guarding their synagogues.

“You’re not standing like a mezuzah at the door,” said the trainer. “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. I don’t want to see people freezing”

In one scenario, congregants filed out of the “synagogue” when a mock bomb landed nearby.

In another scenario, the guards locked down the synagogue as a mob of protesters banged on the building’s windows. A trainer from South Africa hid fake bombs in and around a building to instruct volunteers how to sweep a synagogue before services.

“Everything past here is clean,” a volunteer said as she entered from a side room. “We’ve got a suspicious backpack over there,” another said.

During Krav Maga training on an outdoor basketball court, an Israeli instructor showed participants how to block strikes by using their arms to form a “helmet” around their heads.

Scenarios the group drilled at the Krav Maga practice included where to stand while another volunteer questions a suspicious person, what to do if someone throws a punch during questioning, and how to charge at a knife-wielding assailant.

“It delivers a message to him,” the instructor said. “I’m no longer a victim, I’m willing to fight.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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