Securing houses of worship is collective responsibility

Building trusts and relationships across various lines is key

A SIKH TEMPLE in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

A Methodist church in Charleston, South Carolina.

A Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh.

The attack at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, which claimed at least 50 lives, now takes its place on a tragic roster of recent mass shootings at our houses of worship. These spaces are sacred for most, but they are not off limits for those in society harboring the most extreme forms of anti-Semitism, white supremacy, and xenophobia. Just as the Muslim community of Greater Boston stood with us after Pittsburgh, we now stand with them.

But as these attacks continue, thoughts and prayers only go so far.

Even before the Tree of Life synagogue shooting last October, the deadliest attack against the Jewish community in American history, a sharp rise in anti-Semitism in recent years, along with previous attacks at Jewish federations and community centers, had ensured that security has long been top of mind for leaders in Jewish communities worldwide.

In 2006, Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), in collaboration with partner organizations, and the Department of Homeland Security, formed the Jewish Emergency Management System to help keep our community secure, prepared, and ready to respond to emergencies. This new initiative’s website and free trainings serve as valuable resources for our partners. In addition, we work closely with local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies to ensure that Greater Boston’s Jewish organizations receive accurate, timely information to deal with a potential crisis or threat.

Since that horrible day last fall, when 11 congregants praying at a shabbat service were murdered in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, CJP’s phones have been ringing off the hook with synagogues and organizations seeking guidance on matters of security and emergency preparedness. To respond to this need for support, we have increased the number of free training sessions held at CJP and area synagogues and have opened them to our interfaith partners.

When thinking about these threats, most of us focus on fighting hatred and quelling violence, as we should. And, in the face of legitimate fears, we will focus on security measures for our institutions, as we should. We can always do more in both of these areas. But what we sometimes miss or at least underestimate, is the importance of relationships.

To underscore this point: Most heartening about these free sessions has been the response, not just from within the Jewish community, but from outside the community as well.  Over a dozen police chiefs have joined these forums as an expression of their unwavering support and solidarity with communities of faith. They have expressed a willingness to share their own best practices and ideas for stronger alliances.

It reminds us that proactively building connections, trust, and mutual support between one another and across our institutions is essential to create resiliency and to ensure crisis preparedness and prevention. Every organization should see itself as part of an interconnected whole and should have a strategy for strengthening partnerships and sharing resources.

To that end, CJP encourages leadership and staff of nonprofits to attend and consider hosting security and medical trainings, tabletop drills, and exercises to foster both a practical and realistic security mindset. One example of how we are sharing lessons learned is our partnership with the the leading campus safety organization Safe Havens International. These CJP-sponsored trainings have been attended by Boston Public Schools representatives, parochial school administrators, police chiefs from a host of local communities, and school resource officers from throughout the state.

Based on what we’ve learned through our work in the community, as well as from partnerships in law enforcement, we urge all community organizations to take these steps to increase their own security: build relationships with first responders, take advantage of local resources to improve physical security, apply for grants through the Commonwealth and federal Nonprofit Security Grant Program, and identify partners to sponsor and run training sessions, including malicious intruder response and basic lifesaving.

Meet the Author

Jeremy Yamin

Combined Jewish Philanthropies
It is these vital community partnerships that strengthen our collective resolve and ability to address these threats. The Jewish community remains deeply grateful for the heartfelt show of support from law enforcement post-Pittsburgh, something which served to remind us all that keeping our communities safe and secure has always been, and continues to be, a collective responsibility.

Jeremy Yamin is associate vice president and director of security and operations at Combined Jewish Philanthropies.