December 15, 2023

With a dramatic increase in antisemitic incidents following the October 7th Hamas massacre, Jewish communities in the U.S. ramp up security measures such as drills and guards – as long as they can pay for it.

By Katja Ridderbusch

ATLANTA — What Rabbi Mark Zimmerman felt in the United States after Hamas’s October 7 massacre wasn’t so much surprise, he says. After all, antisemitism had been on the rise in the country for several years.

There was the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, where 11 people were killed, the synagogue shooting in Poway, California, in 2019, the hostage standoff at a reform synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, in 2022, and a spate of violent antisemitic attacks in the New York and New Jersey area in 2020 — to name just a few. All this, Zimmerman says, comes amid a constant crescendo of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel attitudes and actions, verbal and physical, from the right and the left.

Against that backdrop, Zimmerman, senior rabbi at the conservative Congregation Beth Shalom in Dunwoody, just north of Atlanta, says he felt disbelief and “quite some bewilderment” at the public reaction to the Hamas onslaught that saw 1,200 people, most of them civilians, horrendously murdered, and another 240 taken hostage.

Instead of people expressing outrage and compassion over the rampage, “we are seeing pro-Palestinian rallies across the country. We’re hearing calls for the extermination of all Jews, and we’re witnessing an exponential increase in antisemitism,” he says.

Antisemitic incidents increased by almost 400 percent since October 7, according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

As a result, security, which has long been an important issue for Jewish communities in the US, has now taken center stage. According to the 2020 census, Jews account for 2.4% of the total US population — “yet they have always been the largest group for hate crime,” says Brian Davis, security director for the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.

Attacks on Jewish people make up 60% of religiously motivated hate crimes in the US, says the FBI.

Davis’s position as security director was created in partnership with the Secure Community Network (SCN), the official safety and security organization for the Jewish community in North America. SCN helps Jewish institutions and facilities in the US — congregations, schools, community centers and museums — enhance their security, safety and preparedness.

Atlanta is home to almost 120,000 Jews, making the Georgia capital the eighth largest Jewish-populated metropolitan area in the country, according to the US census.

Davis performs threat and risk assessments for approximately 80 Jewish facilities in Atlanta. He and his small team identify vulnerable areas and make suggestions on how to boost security.

“We didn’t start from scratch on October 7,” says Davis, who spent 21 years working for the FBI. “And we were certainly not caught off guard.” For years, SCN has helped Jewish institutions fortify their facilities and train their staff. “The foundation is good. Now we are just trying to make it better.”

Security measures include alarm systems with video cameras, perimeter fences, gates, access control, license plate readers and panic buttons. More often now, there are also armed security guards. But added security can also come from seemingly mundane modifications.

One example is using what security experts call hostile vegetation as a barrier — thorny or sharp leaf shrubs, like roses, hollies or yucca trees, planted along exterior walls and under accessible windows.

In the last couple of years, more and more synagogues and Jewish day schools across the country have started offering Krav Maga classes, the Israeli martial art style, to their members.

The SCN conducts security and emergency response training for Jewish institutions. It also collects and analyzes intelligence by scanning social media or exchanging information with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.

The organization further helps Jewish institutions apply for federal security grants. Unlike in most of Europe and Israel, security for religious institutions in the US is not paid for with taxpayer dollars, except in emergency circumstances. Every church, mosque, temple or synagogue has to pay for its own everyday security on premises.

“Funding security is our main challenge right now,” says Zimmerman. While there are a few large congregations in the Atlanta area, “most synagogues are mid-sized to small” and are scrambling to add more security personnel and other measures for protection — some of which they talk about and want to be known, others “that we don’t talk about,” says the rabbi.

How to ward off an active attacker

Congregation Beth Shalom, which also operates a preschool, has decided to work with private security contractors as well as local police.

In the US, it is common practice for businesses, hospitals and faith-based institutions to hire off-duty police officers as security guards. They perform the side job in their department-issued uniform, with their weapons, equipment and marked patrol car, but are paid directly by the client.

Hiring off-duty police is more expensive than private security firms. That’s for a reason, says Davis. Police officers typically receive longer, deeper, and more standardized training. They follow well-rehearsed protocols and, in case of an incident, can use their radio to call on-duty colleagues for backup. They also have the right to search and seizure and the legal authority to detain and arrest a person. In contrast, private security personnel often “operate in a gray area,” says Davis.

Zimmerman is determined to “keep investing in armed security as long as the war is going on and there’s a sense of threat and vulnerability within the Jewish community.” However, he adds, funding security at such a high level won’t be sustainable long-term.

Without additional financial support from government or private resources, many synagogues, Jewish schools and community centers would eventually “spend so much money on security that they couldn’t make payroll, and operations would fold,” he says with a weary shrug.

However, for the short and medium term, he says developing and maintaining a good relationship with local law enforcement can ease the burden. In municipalities with a strong Jewish population, like Dunwoody, local police have increased their zone patrols around Jewish facilities and in predominantly Jewish neighborhoods.

Police departments, often in close cooperation with the SCN, also conduct safety drills and active shooter and emergency response classes for civilians. One such class took place on a late November afternoon at Jewish Family & Career Services (JF&CS), a non-profit that provides social and clinical services for Jewish and non-Jewish Atlantans in need.

“We offer these types of security training on a regular basis,” says Jason Seabolt, Director of Operations at JF&CS. “But obviously, it is much more relevant now, and our staff members are requesting these classes.”

For two hours, Maj. Oliver Fladrich from the Dunwoody Police Department explains to a group of about 30 JF&CS employees what to do and not to do in the event an active attacker has entered the building, how to save their own lives and as many others as possible. The concept, developed by Texas State University’s School of Criminal Justice and taught by law enforcement around the country, rests on three principles. Avoid the source of the threat, if possible. If that is not an option, deny access to the attacker. And if that fails, defend yourself with whatever is available.

The key takeaway is, “You are not victims,” says Fladrich. “Everybody can do something. The most important thing is: Don’t do nothing.”

The 32-year law enforcement veteran with a military-style crew cut demonstrates with swift movements how civilians can barricade and defend themselves, even against an attacker with a rifle. “Some people may die trying to stop the carnage,” he says. “But more people will die if you just hide and hope.”

He shows the participants how to lock a door with a belt and how to use trash bins, chairs, books, laptops, and pens as weapons. He also teaches them how to use a t-shirt as a pressure dressing to stop a wound from heavy bleeding, or how to use a plastic bag as a makeshift tourniquet.

The class exposes civilians to a range of possible things they can do in the event of a violent attack — by improvising and relying on the power of collective action. “A group has strength in numbers and strength in ingenuity,” says Fladrich, who has participated in several law enforcement exchange programs with Israel in the past.

“It’s a message of clarity, confidence and empowerment,” he adds.

It’s also a message that resonates with Jewish communities worldwide.

“We are definitely a traumatized group of people right now,” says Zimmerman. But he keeps assuring members of his congregation that “this is not like the 1930s in Germany. We have some friends, and we have some allies.” But Jewish communities have also recognized that they can’t just rely on the outside world for security, he adds. “We have to be the eyes, the ears and also the hands as we protect and defend ourselves.”

Learn to control an environment

It is a notion shared by Ariel Siegelman, founder of The Draco Group, a private security contractor in Atlanta. The situation in Israel taught him years ago: “If you allow your security to be dependent on the goodwill of others, you make yourself a target.”

Since the October 7 Hamas massacre, demand for security services in the Jewish community has skyrocketed.

“We’ve gotten lots of inquiries, and luckily we’ve been able to fill the needs of numerous communities,” says Siegelman, who is Israeli-American.

He completed his three-year military service in an IDF combat unit and stayed involved with the reserves. He then pursued a degree in cultural anthropology from the University of Georgia and worked for several years in Israel and Central Africa before founding his company in the US in 2013.

Around 100 security contractors work for Draco at any given time, most of whom are former military, and some have a background in law enforcement. The company offers a full range of security solutions and services, from VIP protection, guard services, and security assessments to safety and emergency response training.

For Siegelman, security is “the ability to control an environment.” The key elements are state-of-the-art technology, tight protocols — and, above all, the human factor: people who can respond swiftly and effectively when something bad happens, with all means necessary, including weapons.

What sets his security service apart from many competitors in the US? “I’m not politically correct,” he says, adding that the cultural paradigm of “positive thinking” is counterproductive when it comes to security. “You can only prepare effectively if you look at a potentially negative future.”

It’s a mantra that sometimes leads to surprised — and surprising — reactions from his clients. He recently met with a group of Orthodox rabbis for a security consultation. When the rabbis asked how they could better protect themselves and their community, Siegelman reached into his backpack, pulled out a rifle and slammed it on the table. The rabbis flinched and shook their heads, voicing concern that the sight of a weapon would scare their congregants.

Well, said Siegelman, “that’s the feeling your enemies should have.” Then, after a pause, the senior most rabbi’s wife, who was the only woman in the room, said, “Bring the rifles.”

Today, armed security guards patrol the congregation’s premises.

Siegelman is well connected within the Jewish community in Atlanta, and his experience as a combat soldier in the IDF has opened doors for his firm. But in general, the credibility and solidity of private security contractors — from training to certification, licensing and insurance — varies widely, and it can be difficult for clients to vet these service providers.

Off-duty police officers few and far between

“If an organization can afford it, we’d suggest they hire off-duty police officers,” says SCN’s Davis. But not only are off-duty cops expensive, they are also not as readily available as they used to be, especially as police departments across the country are facing a recruitment and retention crisis and are struggling to fill their ranks.

If congregations, schools or community centers decide to hire private security there must be an “open and ongoing dialogue between the Jewish organization, the private security firm and local law enforcement,” says Fladrich. And, if possible, all parties should engage in joint crisis response training “so that everyone is on the same page when something happens.”

There’s another divisive issue that’s currently debated within many Jewish institutions in the US: Should congregants be allowed to pack heat in the synagogue? It’s a discussion that’s alive and well among many Christian communities, and several conservative churches have encouraged their members to arm themselves, especially in a pro-gun state like Georgia.

Davis pleads to leave the shooting to the professionals — namely, law enforcement. “One thing we warn about is a lot of people pulling their guns in a place of worship, people who may have never fired a weapon before.”

Zimmerman agrees. “We only want people to carry who are properly trained and proficient with their firearms.” Otherwise, “it could be more dangerous than helpful.”

The echoes of the war in Israel, the rising antisemitism and the fear of Jewish communities for their safety are forcing organizations such as Congregation Beth Shalom to face another dilemma besides exploding costs and debates about different security measures.

“We do need to protect ourselves, but we don’t want to turn into a fortress,” says Zimmerman. “We want to still be open and welcoming.” For the moment at least, the priority is clear, he adds. Security ranks above all.

© The Times of Israel / Katja Ridderbusch