New US government guide aims to assist synagogues in protecting themselves

Advice given by Homeland Security to houses of worship includes keeping hedges trimmed to prevent hiding places for attackers, only ensure necessary info given out on live streams

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

WASHINGTON (AP) — A new guide from the US Department of Homeland Security released Wednesday aims to help churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship protect themselves at a time of heightened tensions in faith-based communities across the country.

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, an arm of Homeland Security, works with faith groups across the country to help them prepare for and prevent targeted violence against their facilities and their members. David Mussington, who’s in charge of infrastructure security at CISA, said the goal of the 16-page document is to give usable information in a format that’s easy to understand.

“It’s designed to be clear, to be less jargon-filled, and to provide guidance and assistance in getting assistance from us,” Mussington said.

The guidance, dubbed “Physical Security Performance Goals for Faith-Based Communities,” outlines how faith groups can better protect themselves: keeping landscaping like hedges trimmed to prevent hiding places for attackers, for example, or only giving out necessary information during live streams of services.

It also talks about having a plan in place for when something happens, such as having a predetermined spot where people can go and having a dedicated location for the faith community to memorialize people affected by what happened. There’s also information about federal government grants that houses of worship can apply for to pay for security improvements as well as other resources the department has developed to help communities.

Mussington said the guidelines have been in the works for months in response to concerns his agency has heard from various faiths about how to protect themselves.

US Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas speaks during a press conference at the US Department of Justice in Washington, DC, on December 6, 2023. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images/AFP)

“In this continued heightened threat environment, the Department of Homeland Security is committed to protecting every American’s right to live, express, and worship their faith freely and in safety,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement. “The physical security performance goals we are releasing today provide churches, synagogues, mosques, and other faith-based institutions with cost-effective, accessible, and readily implementable strategies to enhance their security and reduce the risk to their communities.”

The guidance will be distributed via CISA offices around the country and the agency’s network of roughly 125 protective security advisers across the country who work with various communities to provide security advice.

The guidance comes at a time of deep unease in many communities of faith across America. Jewish communities across the country have been worried about rising antisemitism even before the October 7 Hamas massacre in Israel and the subsequent IDF response, making efforts to defend their synagogues and communities. Since Hamas’s devastating onslaught, Mayorkas said, his agency has responded to an increase in threats against Jewish, Muslim, and Arab American communities in the US.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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