As bomb threats and hate graffiti on Jewish institutions underscore the need for safety, an Alexandria synagogue last week put new security measures into effect.
“We have heard over and over that the most effective way to secure the building is to control access to the building,” Jeff Goldstein and Jonathan Saiger, co-presidents of Agudas Achim Congregation, wrote in an email to the membership of the Conservative synagogue.
According to the email, Agudas Achim began limiting access to its building on April 19. Plans include installing video surveillance, a video and voice intercom that allows for doors to be unlocked remotely and stationing office staff as monitors of the main entry.
The synagogue developed its plans after meetings with the Alexandria Police Department and FBI.
(Agudas Achim declined to speak on the record for this article.)
The congregation’s upgrades are typical for synagogues, said Paul Goldenberg, director of the Secure Community Network, which advises Jewish institutions on security measures.
But security in religious institutions remains a “balance,” he added.
“Our goal is not to turn synagogues into high-walled encampments. We want to remain welcoming,” he said. “[But] people have an expectation for a certain level of security, and it is incumbent for those who work as Jewish [communal] professionals that that it is included in our services.”
How do other synagogues’ security measures compare with Agudas Achim? Contacted by WJW, a number of synagogues declined to discuss them, citing institutional policy.
The “best practices in the security industry call for as little as possible to be stated publically, as it concerns an institution’s policies and procedures,” Steven Jacober, executive director of Washington Hebrew Congregation, said in an email. Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County and Congregation Beth Emeth gave similar reasons.
(Temple B’nai Shalom, Adas Israel Congregation, Congregation Olam Tikvah and Temple Rodef Shalom did not return emails.)
Not everyone agrees.
Shelley Engel, executive director of Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, said it is not a secret that synagogues use video surveillance and have a buzzer to unlock their front door.
“Everyone knows these congregations are doing these things,” she said.
Har Shalom updated its security measures last September while it was renovating its building. This included installing video cameras, an alarm system and assigning a receptionist to greet guests. The synagogue has also given staff members laminated flashcards with instructions for what to do in various emergencies.
Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, said it was a combination of the 1999 shooting at a Los Angeles Jewish Community Center and the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that spurred many into action.
“Those events stuck security in the minds of Jewish communal professionals and made it a necessary infrastructure,” said Halber.
Before that, Halber said, Jewish institutions focused on investing in furthering their missions. Security did not meet that prerequisite.
That is no longer the case.
“It’s the climate,” said Har Shalom’s Engel. “It’s what we’re hearing on television. It frightens us and therefore we have to protect ourselves. We never want to say ‘if only we had … .”
This week, the ADL reported an increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the Washington region during the first quarter of 2017, compared with both 2016 and 2015. There were 37 anti-Semitic incidents in Maryland, the District of Columbia, Virginia and North Carolina, up from 26 incidents in the whole of 2016, according to the ADL.
Halber said there are other ways to “harden the institution,” such as putting an opaque film on the windows. A study released last December suggested that compared with other Jewish organizations, synagogues have the most reason to “harden” their buildings.
The Community Security Service, another Jewish security advisory organization, analyzed 104 violent incidents against Jewish institutions between 1964 and 2016 and found that 51 percent (53 attacks) occurred at synagogues. By contrast, the next most common target was “Jewish organizations” (14 attacks) such as Jewish community centers and Holocaust museums.
Goldenberg, the security professional, said the technology synagogues are using is important, but the key to security is training the staff.
He said: “Without the human factor to support technology, the technology only records what happened. It doesn’t prevent what may happen.”