How do you keep a synagogue safe?

A CSS volunteer works security at the National Menorah lighting ceremony. Photo courtesy of CSS.

When Kol Ami Reconstructionist Community in Arlington co-hosted an interfaith concert on Sunday, it did so with a detailed — and homemade — security plan in place.

Five volunteers trained by Arlington police secured the two entrances, cutting access off to one once the concert began. Had something suspicious occurred, they were ready to block the entrance and begin locking down the building.

It was a plan they began working on six months ago. Kol Ami and two other congregations — the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington and the Moroccan American Community — had decided against an expensive and more heavy-handed police presence, opting to handle security themselves.

Herb Cooper, Kol Ami’s community coordinator, said the training was accelerated after the Nov. 5 shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, that left 26 dead.

“Unfortunately, in the world that we live in today, someone who hates could be attracted to an interfaith event,” Cooper said. “Especially one where Jews and Muslims are two of the faiths.”

Even with the recent mass shootings and the Anti-Defamation League reporting increased incidents of anti-Semitism in Virginia, Cooper said armed security was hardly considered. The synagogue has a strict no-guns policy, and it hasn’t moved from that position.

“We certainly don’t want some kind of citizen militia,” Cooper said. “Under no circumstances are weapons permitted in the building, period. But any congregation needs to have a thoughtful approach. You want to be a sanctuary, but you can also be a target.”

For congregations looking to go farther, a national nonprofit organization is looking to help. New York-based Community Security Service specializes in training local Jewish populations in synagogue security. The concept is simple, even if the training is complex. Most often, a representative of a Jewish community will contact CSS. A CSS representative will train members of the community and set up lines of communication with the local police department. Then, a regional director — the local point person — trains volunteers from interested synagogues.

David Bacall, the organization’s West Coast director, declined to say whether its volunteers were armed where state and local laws allow because he didn’t want any would-be attacker to know what capabilities their personnel have. According to Bacall, 41, CSS charges about $200 annually for institutions. He said the organization has more than 4,000 trained volunteers in four states and the District of Columbia.

District resident Vera Krimnus joined in 2011. She had no background in security. But her grandmother was a Holocaust survivor. Much of Krimnus’s Jewish upbringing revolved around remembrance, she said.
“It made me also think about the future,” Krimnus said, “and what we can, as a community, do to make sure we’re being proactive.”

Recently, there’s been a spike in interest owing to the Texas shooting and Charlottesville, Va., violence, she said.

She’s now the CSS Washington-area regional manager, working primarily with Kesher Israel in Georgetown and Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac.

Beth Shalom has 30 volunteers who have undergone training and rotate schedules. On Shabbat and holidays, a group of volunteers in dark blue CSS jackets and earpieces monitor what is happening outside the Orthodox congregation.

Bacall said that CSS works alongside local police departments, which often offer security training themselves to congregations. Because CSS volunteers are often members at the synagogues they work with, they know who belongs and who doesn’t.

“It’s great to have some random Israeli guy out there looking scary,” Bacall said about synagogue’s hiring outside security. “But they don’t necessarily have the pulse of the community the way a volunteer does.”

Krimnus said the approach doesn’t amount to profiling, just a healthy dose of skepticism of unfamiliar faces. CSS volunteers typically welcome newcomers and ask where they’re headed. By having even a brief interaction, Krimnus said, the volunteers may be able to gauge whether someone poses a threat.

“If you look at the perpetrators of attacks over the last 20 years, they have looked very different,” Krimnus said. “It’s very hard to tell if you’re just going by what people look like. We’re focusing on behavior, not just appearance.”

The balance of being secure as well as welcoming is a delicate one. But by effectively positioning volunteers as greeters, Bacall said, CSS doesn’t sacrifice one for the other.

“You can leave the shul door open. You shouldn’t have to walk through airport security to see God,” Bacall said. “But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have someone watching the door.”

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  1. The flaw with this plan is that it assumes that an armed shooter will not be able to enter the Shul: past unarmed security. In Poway an Off Duty Border Patrol Agent was armed and was able to drive away the shooter. Most mass shootings are in areas that have been purposefully selected by a shooter which have few exits and which there will be a large crowd of people and in which those people are UNARMED. This makes for “shooting fish in a barrel” and maximizes casualties. There is no replacement for a good guy with a gun. When you call 911 you are making a call to a team of “good guys with guns”. The difference is the numbers of such people and response time. Having armed people on the premise results in a FASTER response time (seconds as opposed to 10-15 minutes)


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