(NEW YORK) — As the Jewish community grapples with a recent surge in antisemitic incidents, many U.S. synagogues are increasingly turning to trainings led by security experts who can advise on what to do if there’s a violent threat on the premises.
Antisemitic assaults jumped 26% and acts of vandalism spiked more than 50% in 2022, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Three out of the last five years have been record breakers for such incidents, the ADL said.
Non-profit Secure Community Network says it holds “countering active threat” trainings for the American Jewish community.
Following antisemitic incidents, the organization tends to see “big spikes” in requests for these trainings, a spokesperson told ABC News. A Texas rabbi credited a training with knowing how to respond when an armed suspect took four congregants hostage at a Colleyville synagogue last January. The hostages escaped and the suspect was fatally shot by police after a standoff.
The following month, requests for active threat trainings in synagogues and Jewish spaces rose to nearly 300 across the country, the spokesperson said.
“We were established to ensure that the Jewish community had access to the best practice information around safety and security preparedness,” Robert Graves, deputy director of Strategic Operational Development at Secure Community Network, told ABC News podcast “Start Here.”
Graves recently led one such training at a synagogue in Montgomery County, Maryland. The synagogue spoke to ABC News under the condition their name or specific location wouldn’t be identified.
“I’m a mom and, you know, I come here with my kids and it terrifies me, that I’m not going to be able to protect myself or protect them,” a congregant named Jen told “Start Here.”
“It’s hard. It’s very hard and it’s kind of discombobulating sometimes, but I feel like it’s one of the things that comes with the territory, sort of as being a Jewish person in the world today. But that’s where the training comes in. So you have to kind of remind yourself, ‘I am safe.’ And then you can let yourself into the moment,” she continued.
Montgomery County has the largest percentage of Jewish residents in the state — over 10% out of 1 million residents. Just last year, the local police department reported 48 anti-Jewish bias incidents in the county, which was up 55% compared to the previous year.
The Secure Community Network holds 40 to 50 active threat trainings in the D.C.-area Jewish community per year, the spokesperson said.
At one point in the synagogue’s history, the building was vandalized with a graffiti swastika in an incident that stoked fear among the community, a congregant said. But there haven’t been any threats or acts of violence targeting the synagogue, according to local police.
Still, the congregation keeps its doors locked at all times, even on the Sabbath and other holidays. Congregants use fingerprint access to gain entry to the synagogue. A security committee discusses security of their building and coordinates safety education, such as the training conducted by the Secure Community Network.
“These attacks, these shootings can happen anywhere. You know, synagogue’s just a place that a lot of us spend a lot of time, and sure, we are an enhanced target,” said another congregant, adding that he believes it’s still the best time and place to be Jewish, “compared to some of the things that our ancestors have been through.”
“One of our many narratives of the Jewish people facing oppression in the past [is] you know, through courage, rising up and changing this story and changing the outcome of this story,” the synagogue’s rabbi said.
While just over 2% the U.S. population self-identifies with the religion, Jewish people were the targets of 51.4% of 1,590 religiously motivated hate crimes reported in 2021, according to FBI data released in March.
The Secure Community Network was founded in 2004 under the auspices of The Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, according to their website. Along with safety training, the organization conducts threat assessments and offers consulting on safety and security matters. The organization also says it monitors and shares “credible threat and incident” information with law enforcement and others in the community.
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