and advice provided here are drawn from many sources, including: government agencies, professional security experts, racial-justice-focused non-profit organizations, other religious denominations within and beyond the Jewish community, and the resources and practices of several Reconstructionist congregations.
Please note that we are not safety or security professionals. It is the responsibility of each congregation to decide what its safety practices and policies will be, and we recognize that every congregation is unique and may have different needs. We offer this guide as a set of suggested practices that, taken in total, can help Reconstructionist congregations develop and implement a Jewish values-based and common-sense approach to improving safety.
A final thought: we know this is a lot of information. Start somewhere even if you can’t do everything all at once. Each step you take to make your community safer is an accomplishment and a mitzvah. Build your security plan and practices sustainably so that they are durable and become increasingly reflexive over time.
A Note on Our Use of the Word “Safety”
Throughout this guide, we use the terms “safety” and “safety committee” rather than “security / security committee.” Wherever you see the term “safety” it is inclusive of the idea of improving security, but it is also more than that. Safety also addresses steps congregations can take to help save lives through preparedness for medical emergencies, severe weather events, and through strengthening relationships with various local groups and institutions.
1. CREATE A PLAN, TRAIN PEOPLE, AND PRACTICE
- Form and maintain a safety committee that reports to the board. Avoid allowing the safety committee to be made up entirely of members who all have the same attitudes and values about approaches to safety. It’s crucial to have people on this committee who represent different values and different demographic subgroups within your congregation, in order to avoid a set-up in which your safety committee’s recommendations are likely to be shot down by the board or the wider membership.
- Develop a comprehensive safety plan. This will be an internal document that is shared with staff and lay leaders, and which can be accessed by members of the congregation when necessary. But, this is not a public document and it should not be accessible to the public on your website.
- Organizations like Secure Community Network can help you create one. Local police may also be a resource, as can neighboring houses of worship. The Department for Thriving Communities can also help connect you with other Reconstructionist congregations that have developed a plan.
- Avoid getting stuck on internal congregational divisions about any one tactical element of your plan.
- Here’s one example: we have witnessed some congregations get into internal debates over whether to hire an armed security guard. We support congregations engaging in a values-based decision-making process on synagogue policy questions that involve safety, racial justice, and guns. But getting stuck on a question about a single aspect of an overall safety plan can paralyze a congregation.
- Avoid getting stuck on internal congregational divisions about any one tactical element of your plan.
Security experts advise that it is a better use of a congregation’s energy to keep the focus on developing their overall safety plan, and to treat any divisive issues about a single aspect of that plan as matters to be considered in light of the overall goals of the entire plan. In the case of the armed guard example, it may turn out that the security advisors you’ve consulted won’t see much benefit gained by introducing an armed guard into your specific plan and may recommend spending your available funds on something else. Or, it may turn out that a little research about local security companies yields the discovery that there are companies that understand the values and concerns of your congregation and are good at working with you to design a plan for how they will provide their services in a way that seeks to address those concerns. In other words, try not to get stuck on a single issue, and look for options to address those challenging issues that are not all-or-nothing choices.
- Ask local police or security experts to do a walk-through of the sites where you gather for services, religious school, etc., and to make recommendations for how you can improve your security and safety. Repeat this procedure every few years. Do the same with your local fire department.
- Establish evacuation sites outside of your building in case of emergency. Obtain a written agreement with the owners of nearby properties who are willing to allow you to use part of their space to gather for these kinds of emergencies. If your congregation is able to reciprocate or provide evacuation sites for other community organizations, be a good neighbor and do so.
- Determine which room(s) will be used in the event of a need for sheltering in place or a lockdown. If you’re not sure which rooms are best suited for these purposes, ask for advice from local police or from an expert. Ideally, this room (or rooms) can serve as a shelter during severe weather situations as well as a secure location in the event of an active shooter situation. Make sure you have supplies like bottled water, flashlights, and nonperishable food snacks. Also, you’ll need a bathroom receptacle such as a 5-gallon bucket with a lid, as well as bathroom tissue and hand sanitizer. Consider special needs some people may have, including people with diabetes or other conditions that require the availability of specific kinds of food or medicine and incorporate those items into these supplies. There’s a good overview of how to set up a typical school classroom to be used for lockdown at this website.
- During services or other events, include words of welcoming that provide information about where exits are in case of the need to evacuate, and identify any individuals who are present who are willing to assist others if they have any emergencies or other important needs during services / the event.
- Get first-aid equipment including an AED (automated external defibrillator) and keep these resources in good working order. The likelihood of someone having a cardiac arrest event at your synagogue is far, far greater than the likelihood of a violent attack. To increase safety and save lives, having an AED on site is a top priority. Most AEDs today have built-in voice instructions that activate to guide users even if they have no prior experience using an AED. Also, groups like your local Red Cross often provide free trainings in basic first aid and CPR. Provide these kinds of trainings to your staff periodically.
- Stop The Bleed is a campaign to help empower people in public buildings to take life-saving first-aid steps in the event that someone is bleeding from a serious cut or wound. You can search for ongoing trainings near you, often free or at minimal cost, at this website. Printable posters with instructions are available here and here. Stop The Bleed also sells kits, including tourniquets, at this site. You can shop around for similar kits at all major online vendors.
- Post information about support for people experiencing domestic abuse or intimate partner violence and seek training for clergy and key staff from local agencies. You can research resources and find out about local agencies online at https://www.thehotline.org/ in the U.S. and in Canada at https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/health-promotion/stop-family-violence/services.html. Your local Jewish Federation may also have resources specific to the Jewish community. Ask for advice about how and where to make this information available within your building.
- Post information about support for people who may be at risk of suicide. Canada’s main resource center is at https://talksuicide.ca/. The U.S.’s main resource center is at https://988lifeline.org/. The U.S. government also has an online store where you can purchase posters, magnets, and wallet cards: https://store.samhsa.gov/?search_api_fulltext=988&sort_bef_combine=search_api_relevance_DESC.
- Get training for staff, clergy, religious school teachers, and key lay leaders in crisis responses to active threats, and practice these emergency procedures often enough so that they become familiar. Active threats include bomb threats, active shooters, and violent or disorderly individuals causing harm on the premises. The decision to prepare for them is sensible and empowering for our communities, but it is also a good idea to remind everyone that, statistically speaking, violent hate crimes are extremely unlikely to occur in your congregation. Free trainings are offered on a rolling basis and by appointment by Secure Community Network and sometimes by local law enforcement agencies as well. Some municipalities have special departments dedicated to community emergency response and have staff who will provide such training. If you aren’t sure how to access these kinds of trainings, contact the Department for Thriving Communities at Reconstructing Judaism for assistance.
- Train ushers and greeters to focus on specific behavior patterns that are worthy of an initial safety concern, and train them on what to do if they witness problematic behaviors. Behavior, not physical appearance, should drive safety-minded responses from ushers and greeters. One resource created by US federal agencies that provides training in this area is called The Power of Hello. Another US federal agency resource that includes advice on techniques volunteer greeters can use to engage in de-escalation and other practices relating to dealing with problematic behavior can be found here. Also, Secure Community Network and other non-profit organizations periodically offer training online or in person. If you need assistance figuring out who may be available to provide training in this area, contact us in the Department for Thriving Communities.
- Practice safety drills with your congregation’s adult members and with children if you have youth education programs on site. Practice for severe weather events as well as for active threats. Use common sense and good judgment in order to avoid unnecessarily alarming young children, but do practice.
Do not implement a safety plan that involves members of your congregation coming to services or events with their own firearms, whether concealed or openly visible. Security experts and law enforcement agents strongly advise against this approach. It dramatically raises the risk of an accidental shooting, and in the event of an active threat in which the police rush to the synagogue, it creates the possibility of confusion for the police regarding who is a perpetrator. Your congregation’s insurance also may not cover your liability for anything that goes tragically wrong if you implement such a policy.
2. INCORPORATE DEI (DIVERSITY, EQUITY, & INCLUSION) INTO YOUR PLAN
- Build DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) training into all aspects of your safety plan. Doing this is not a concession to “political correctness” that reduces the efficacy of a safety plan; rather, it is an essential part of crafting a plan that maximizes the safety of everyone in the congregation, as well as guests and visitors. In order to build DEI into a safety and security plan:
- DEI includes diversity of many kinds: race, disability, neurodiversity, mental health, dress/appearance, sexual orientation, transgender and non-binary people, national origin (including non-English speakers); and religion (many synagogue families are interfaith). Create an internal document that seeks to name as many kinds of diversity as possible that are part of your community. Be sure to include a section about visitors who come to events at your community as well, e.g. at b’nai mitzvahs. If there are outside groups that rent rooms in your building, like AA or scouts, include them too. You can share this document with local police or with security professionals as part of an explanation to them of who gathers in your congregation, what kinds of diversity they can expect to see at your congregational events, and what kinds of biases you want to avoid in the course of implementing safety and security plans.
- Have thoughtful discussions with congregational members of all backgrounds about the pros and cons of making specific decisions regarding the role of uniformed security personnel or law enforcement in your safety and security plan. Include in those discussions some education about the different ways that different members of the community may feel in the presence of uniformed security personnel or police, and look for a path forward that allows the concerns and carefully weighed-out values of the congregation to be incorporated into the plan even if the plan you decide upon involves some compromises. You can find some thoughtful articles for study here, here, here and here.
- When training ushers and greeters, train them beforehand about the synagogue’s approach to welcoming and greeting people in the context of a diverse Jewish community. Volunteers can’t know this information if they aren’t taught it. Teach volunteers to use the same language of welcoming and greeting with everyone, and to refrain from asking individuals who may not fit a stereotypical Ashkenazi Jewish visual profile questions like “are you Jewish” or “have you ever been to a synagogue before”? This excellent resource guide for greeters from Kol Tzedek Synagogue (Philadelphia, PA) can be helpful. In addition to racial bias, class bias also is important to watch for.
- Communicate with the congregation periodically from the bimah about the approach that staff and volunteers have been trained to use to help keep the community safe, including the DEI elements of the approach. Provide a contact for anyone who would like to express a concern about the congregation’s enactment of its safety plan, whether that concern relates to DEI matters or something else.
- If a situation is not a life-threatening emergency, know who you can call besides the police to provide urgent assistance. Using non-police rapid response resources dedicated to assisting with situations involving issues like mental health crises or homelessness helps reduce the chances of anything going wrong when summoning an armed response, while also sparing limited police resources. Some examples of these kinds of resources include 24/7 mental health crisis rapid response teams, homeless shelter emergency response numbers, etc. Your local Jewish Family Service or general community help line (211 in the United States and Canada) may also be able to provide you with current contact information for non-police emergency response teams and resources that are available in your area. You can find a catalog of these kinds of resources organized by cities in the U.S. at this link. In situations that appear to involve a mental health difficulty, there are some steps that staff and volunteers can be trained to use to de-escalate and help stabilize the situation before calling anyone, providing of course that they feel their own safety is not being compromised by doing so. De-escalation advice and training addressing these situations are available here, here, and here.
Create a one-page description of your congregation for local police and for any security guards you may choose to hire. Make sure it explains that Jews come in all colors, that LGBTQ+ members are part of the community, that some members are not Jewish, that some may be neurodiverse, etc. Your goal is maintaining a welcoming and safe presence for the congregation’s diverse membership as a top priority of the synagogue. Make sure to include information about the presence of members with mobility challenges, about numbers and age ranges of children likely to be on-site, and about whether there are members who can’t understand or communicate in English (including members who use ASL).
3. COMMUNICATE PROACTIVELY WITH LOCAL LAW ENFORCEMENT
Different congregations will make different decisions about how they handle their relationship with local police. These decisions may be determined in part by the specific histories and local contexts pertaining to different communities. For example, in some communities, the local police department’s staff may be more racially diverse and DEI savvy than the population at large, and it may have an excellent track record of protecting minority communities and houses of worship from threats. A different synagogue in a different area may be reckoning with a police department that has had multiple recent incidents of violent racial profiling, or problems involving members of the force having displayed sympathy for White Nationalist groups. (Both of these examples are based on real situations.) Beyond these specific circumstances, when considering the development of a safety plan it is important to weigh the reality that some members of our congregations are likely to feel an enhanced sense of safety in the presence of local police while others may feel an enhanced sense of danger.
As Reconstructionist communities, we encourage the use of a Jewish values-based-decision-making approach to determine a synagogue’s policies relating to local law enforcement. But, whatever policies your congregation decides to enact, there is always some role that local law enforcement will play in any safety plan. If local police receive information about a possibly dangerous event taking place at one of your gatherings, they will respond regardless of whether you have already established a relationship with them or not. Even if your congregation decides to minimize its involvement with local law enforcement, there are some basic steps that we recommend you take for the sake of enhancing safety.
- Communicate what your safety plan is to local police. In case an emergency arises in which police hurry to your location, it’s important that they know beforehand the key elements of your safety plan. Things to tell them include:
- whether you have any professional security guards, which company they work for, and if they are uniformed or armed;
- your evacuation locations;
- names of your members who are likely to be playing leadership roles during an emergency. Providing the mobile phone contact information for these members, with their permission, can also help improve the effectiveness of any emergency police response;
- a reminder that members of your congregation come from different racial, ethnic, and other backgrounds;
- dates and times when the congregation gathers, including major holidays and events;
- dates and times throughout the year when children are most likely to be on site, including estimated numbers of children and age ranges.
The more information local police have about your community and its safety plan in advance, the less likely the chance of the police incorrectly identifying the wrong person as a threat during an emergency.
Establish and maintain a good working relationship with your local police department. Even if your congregation decides that it prefers to minimize the role of law enforcement in your safety plans, it is important to maintain a regular line of communication with them to let them know when the congregation will be meeting during the week and when major holidays and large-crowd events will take place. If the congregation has strong concerns about ensuring that any first responders know that the membership is diverse racially and along other axes of diversity, these check-ins are good opportunities to share that information. Towards this end, check to find out whether your local police host community meetings or other events designed to improve community-police relations. These events can provide good opportunities to build familiarity and reliable connections with local law enforcement personnel.
4. COMMUNICATE AND PARTNER WITH NEIGHBORS
- Create safety partnerships with other houses of worship in your community. Ask them if they’d be willing to work with you to establish a multi-congregational safety committee that would engage volunteers in reciprocal roles for each other’s congregations during highly attended holidays, or during periods of heightened threat to any of the congregations. Reach out especially to other congregations that also experience vulnerability to hate crimes, and co-create a plan for mutual involvement in each other’s safety plans. For example, congregations can serve as each other’s emergency evacuation locations. Volunteer greeters from one congregation, wearing specially marked t-shirts and carrying walkie-talkies, can serve another congregation during key holiday events by welcoming people and observing the entrances to the building during services. If your congregation is already part of a local multi-faith organization, consider bringing up this idea with that group of congregations. (A special note: taking these steps helps undermine the efforts of White Nationalists to sew division and mutual suspicion among different minority communities. It is a way of taking the threat from racist groups and turning it into a catalyst for strengthening the bonds of pluralism and diversity in our society.)
- If your community has a local human rights commission, ask them if they would be willing to help design and implement a mutual security strategy for houses of worship of minority faith communities. They may be willing to do the organizing and maintenance work required to enact a multi-congregational mutual safety plan.
- If your local community has mental health crisis response services available, develop a good relationship with them and keep their contact information handy in case of emergencies. Take the time to find out what kinds of situations these agencies will respond to, whether their services are available at the times when your community gathers, and what their typical response times are to crisis calls. Sometimes these agencies also provide training in de-escalation and management of situations in which an individual experiencing mental health problems may be acting in a violent or threatening way. If a situation arises that requires some outside intervention but does not appear to be causing any serious risk of physical harm to anyone, calling a mental health crisis response agency before calling the police can help avoid the escalation that the arrival of police sometimes sparks. Also, please note that some mental health crisis response teams have a policy of informing the police when they make an emergency response visit, or even of being accompanied by police. Find out what the local practices of any agency serving your area are so that you know what to expect if you decide to call them for assistance.
Get training along with other local houses of worship from experts in areas like CPR or CATT (countering-an-active-threat-training). Learning these skills in partnership with another congregation helps reduce the feelings of isolation and vulnerability that people in both congregations may feel, and helps build familiarity among staff and lay people most involved in safety work among the participating congregations.
5. MODIFY YOUR BUILDING AND YOUR ONLINE PRESENCE
- Doors and entryways: lock doors and use keyless coded entry systems.
- No matter how many doors you have, ideally, only one should be appointed as a throughway for entering or exiting services or events. Volunteers or staffers who are familiar with your members should staff this door. All other doors should be equipped with exit-only locking mechanisms in the event of evacuations.
- We recommend electronic locking systems that can be activated without a key. Key fobs for members and staff can provide seamless entry for them while requiring others to use an intercom or video interface to gain entry. Never prop doors open or have anything blocking their path. Test the locking systems regularly and remind staff and volunteers to report any problems with door locks immediately.
- Train people who respond to visitors using the intercom to use the same language and courteous tone with all visitors, to avoid racial or class profiling, and to use the same rules for all visitors who are not already known to the intercom staffer. During regular office hours, be willing to take a message including the visitor’s contact information and best times to reach them if the decision is not to allow a visitor to enter the building.
- Discuss the need for these procedures with your community and involve them in the safety and security conversation. This will ensure greater buy-in and an understanding of security measures.
- Security cameras: practical decisions and Jewish ethical considerations. Installing security cameras can provide a deterrent to anyone who may seek to cause harm at your site, and video recordings can provide evidence after the fact in case of an incident. At the same time, there are several decisions to be made that complicate the discussion. Who on staff or among volunteers will have access to camera recordings? What rules will you implement to safeguard individual privacy? Will you restrict the use of any recorded information for safety emergency situations only? (For example, if there is a situation involving a member household that includes a divorce and a complex shared custody agreement, what policy will you have in place should one of the parents in that household demand access to your recordings in order to support a claim they are making regarding a pick-up or drop-off dispute?) If your local community offers you the option to allow the police to have live direct access to your video feed, or pre-authorizes the police to have access to all of your video recordings, what decision will you make about those options? We recommend that congregations seek broad input from their members regarding the possible use of security cameras, including some of the detailed questions mentioned above, and that whatever decision your board makes involve strong buy-in from your members.
- Ask a security expert to evaluate your website and electronic communications practices in order to provide you with recommendations for improving security. Secure Community Network or your local Jewish Federation can be resources. Repeat this procedure every few years.
- Do not post Zoom meeting links on your website that anyone can use to enter an online event directly. If you do post Zoom links, they should require people to register in advance and provide their contact information, or else to acquire a password via a means that you determine. Building in one of these additional steps to online access dramatically reduces the chances of Zoombombing.
- Do not post maps of the interior of your building online. This includes blueprints or architectural drawings that may be posted as part of a synagogue’s celebration of having built a new building.
- Do not include security information that grants access to the building, such as keypad codes for entryways, in congregational weekly emails or in your e-newsletters.
6. IF YOU HIRE PROFESSIONAL SECURITY STAFF
- If you hire private security, make sure to hire highly qualified and trained people, and communicate with them beforehand about your diversity and equity values. Ask them to commit to helping to uphold and enact your community’s values on these issues. If they seem unable to do that or don’t know what you’re talking about, consider hiring someone else. Also consider hiring from companies that have a diverse workforce and that include diversity, equity, and inclusion training as part of their practice. Ask around your local community to find out which companies are the best in this regard.
- Have a Jewish-values based discussion about the potential impacts of hiring uniformed and/or armed security professionals upon different members of your congregation and upon your potential visitors and guests. Find out how different members feel about it – does it make some members feel less safe coming to synagogue while making other members feel safer? What are the impacts and the trade-offs? These discussions should involve your safety and security committee, your board, your rabbis, and your diversity and inclusion committee (if you have one, and if you don’t, it’s a great idea to plan to have one). These discussions should include input from a broadly representative sample of your members, across lines of race, age, gender identity, ability, sexual orientation, and class. If you find that in the short-term you need to make decisions on this question before you will be able to engage in a substantive community conversation on this topic, that’s okay. Make the decisions you need to make for today and plan time in the near future for deeper discussion of these questions. The Department for Thriving Communities can help you with planning a Jewish-values based decision-making process relating to this issue.
Links cited in this resource:
988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (U.S.)
Altaris Group: 3 Steps to Lockdown Room Preparation
American Psychiatric Association Foundation, Quick Reference on Mental Health for Faith Leaders (printable)
Burton, Nylah, As a Black Jew, I’m Begging You: Don’t Arm Your Synagogue, https://www.heyalma.com/as-a-black-jew-im-begging-you-dont-arm-your-synagogue/.
Crisis Prevention Institute: Top 10 De-escalation Tips
“De-escalation Training Series” (Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency of the U.S. Government)
https://www.cisa.gov/resources-tools/resources/de-escalation-series (scroll down to download materials)
Government of Canada: Find family violence resources and services in your area
Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Preventing Hate Violence, https://www.jfrej.org/campaigns/freedom-to-thrive/hate-violence-prevention-initiative.
Kaufman, Ilana, Notes From the Field: After a Shul Shooting, Keeping Our Multiracial Jewish Community Safe,
Lev, Raphael, For the Sin of Prejudice: Growing Up Jewish as a Person of Color, https://www.reformjudaism.org/blog/sin-prejudice-growing-jewish-person-color.
National (U.S.) Domestic Violence Hotline
Non-Police Resources for Various Emergency Situations
“The Power of Hello” Training Materials for Ushers/Greeters (Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency of the U.S. Government)
Publications and Digital Products from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the U.S. Government
Schwartz, Rabbi Jeremy, The Torah Process: How Jews Make Decisions
Secure Community Network
Secure Community Network – Countering an Active Threat Reference Guide
Secure Community Network – Greeter/Usher Training Reference Guide
Stop the Bleed
Stop the Bleed – Calendar of Trainings and Workshops
Stop the Bleed Flowchart Posters and Instructions (printable)
Stop the Bleed Kits for Sale
Talk Suicide: Canada
Tastrom, Katie, 5 Ways to Help Someone in a Mental Health Emergency Without Calling the Police
Teutsch, Rabbi David, Values-Based Decision Making
Welcome Poster for Synagogues from Reconstructing Judaism
Welcoming Each Other at Kol Tzedek Synagogue – Usher/Greeter Reference Guide