On the side of caution with Robert Graves

Photo by David Holzel

With a spike in anti-Semitic attacks here and around the country, the state of security in Jewish Washington is — what?

Best guess is that it’s in flux. But, then, it’s always in flux, according to the Jewish community’s security expert. There is no end of the line called “totally secure.”

“Safety and security are not destinations. They aren’t an end product,” says Robert Graves, whose title is regional director of security. “Security is one of those things that is never done. It’s a process.”

Graves’ control center is his office at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, in Rockville. He started his job here last fall, after 22 years with the FBI and a period of consulting work. And his presence is part of a growing national Jewish coordination over security — his paycheck comes through a partnership between the Federation and Secure Community Network, itself the creation of two national Jewish umbrella organizations.


Graves, 57, has a national security background. He’s a counterman of sorts — counter espionage, counter proliferation, counter intelligence. Dressed in a waistcoat, suit jacket and jeans, this is his first interview with the press. Decades of tight lips have made him circumspect about questions about his work and, more importantly, just how safe Jews are in their synagogues, JCCs, schools and other institutions.

“In the culture I come from, you don’t talk about these things,” he says. “And you want to be fairly certain about what you share.”

He will say that Jewish institutions are all over the map when it comes to their level of security.

“We provide assistance to Jewish institutions for security planning, emergency planning. We help them with assessments of their facilities. So we understand what their security preparedness posture is. And what the next step is,” he says.

“On any given day I will meet with one or more congregations or Jewish institutions, make a physical security assessment, help them sort out or update their security challenges, liaise with headquarters and national Jewish agencies downtown. We have meetings with my counterparts in law enforcement both national and local. At some point I’ll make my way here to try to write some of this all down,” he says.

What does it take to make a synagogue secure?

“We have a saying, if you’ve seen one synagogue you’ve seen one synagogue,” he says. “No two are alike. Their needs will vary with their size, with their location. The culture of the particular congregation. We look at certain baselines: Good access control — lock the doors.”

He continues, “Planning and preparation of the community is probably the key thing. Training is a low to no cost measure to enhance every individual’s preparedness. Every individual we enhance their preparedness, the community’s preparedness is enhanced.”

Part of the training he offers is active shooter training. The call for people to be armed in houses of worship goes up every time a synagogue or church is attacked. Graves spoke the day SCN issued a report that said “an armed guard or armed congregant is not a security strategy or plan on its own.”

“If a congregation chooses to use armed security, it should be considered as only one element in a strategy,” Graves says.

So what are synagogues, JCCs, schools and others doing to keep the people inside their walls safe? No spoilers here.

“We’re on the right path,” he says. “Every day we engage more and more institutions and get them further along their individual path. In that way we build a safety security culture.”

A security culture is just as much a part of a synagogue as, say, the melodies used in prayer or how politics is dealt with from the bimah. Once set, they’re hard to change. That includes what a synagogue is willing to say and not say to protect its safety. “I would always counsel they err on the side of caution,” Graves says.

Hand in hand with the quest for security is the freedom and comfort people are asked to give up in exchange. In its list of security procedures, for example, along with firearms, Sixth & I Synagogue in Washington prohibits balloons.

“OK, that’s a choice,” Graves says. Asked if he would counsel that a synagogue prohibit balloons, he answers, “That falls into the category of every congregation has its own culture. Its own comfort level. I’m not going to tell them that’s a bad idea. It’s not a wrong thing.”

Sixth & I declined to discuss the banning of balloons.

Grave points out that he’s working with a network of Jewish institutions, including the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, which helps get local government funding, and the ADL, which tracks anti-Semitic activities.

“None of us would be effective without the others.”

And while many fear the next Tree of Life shooting, with multiple deaths, Graves said threats to security are more likely to come in mundane ways.

“We most often think of the incredibly high impact things like the active shooter. Those are incredibly low probability events. The simple action of someone falling ill, random crime of opportunity, personal disputes among congregants. Any of these can be disruptive and cause challenge to the safety of the congregation.”

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