When the survivors of last weekend’s attack on a Texas synagogue talk about why they’re alive today, they point to two factors.
One is the work of law enforcement. The second is the training and preparation they got from the Secure Community Network, a nonprofit safety and training organization that is “working to build a protective, proactive shield over the North American Jewish community,” as its national director and CEO told CNN.
“Those courses, that instruction, helped me to understand that you need to act in moments where your life is threatened,” Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker told CNN just days after he and others launched a daring escape from a hostage-taker who’d earlier joined their worship service.
“I would not have had the courage, I would not have had the know-how or (known) what to do without that instruction.”
As last Saturday’s attack on Congregation Beth Israel approached its 11th hour, Cytron-Walker spotted a key moment – just as he’d learned in training set up by the Secure Community Network, or SCN. When he felt the gunman’s guard was down, the rabbi committed to action: He told the others to run, grabbed a chair and threw it at the assailant, giving the hostages enough time to escape with their lives.
“We weren’t released or freed,” Jeffrey Cohen, vice president of the synagogue’s board of trustees, wrote on Facebook. “We escaped because we had training from the Secure Community Network on what to do in the event of an active shooter.”
And it’s not just active shooter drills. SCN has built a comprehensive security, training and intelligence operation designed to protect Jewish communities across North America – an operation that has proven its worth time and again amid a rise in anti-Semitic incidents, from vandalism to a gunman’s siege.
“I believe that the work that we do and the manner in which we do it will make a difference in the lives of Jewish Americans,” SCN National Director and CEO Michael Masters told CNN, “to be able to participate freely in the practice of their religion and their culture and their traditions.”
To that end, SCN helps Jewish institutions – synagogues, community centers, day schools or assisted living facilities – implement tools like security cameras and alarm systems to keep them safe while still open and welcoming. It also provides or supports local security directors – many with deep FBI or other law enforcement experience – to monitor safety protocols and threats daily and to train community members to confront or escape deadly threats.
The problem, he said, is a too-common thread of the “narrative of the 3,000-year history of the Jewish people.”
“Almost everywhere we have existed or sought to make a life, there have been those that have not wanted us there or not wanted us to exist,” Masters said, adding that’s true of other faith traditions as well. “The fact that it exists in the United States at this time is deplorable.”
Building SCN to face down those targeted threats – broadly, systematically and head-on – “is about preserving not just who we are as a Jewish people,” he said. “It’s about also preserving, in my opinion, who we are as Americans and what our country stands for.”
Added Masters: “As a father, the idea that my children might ever question – or as a parent, I might ever question – whether they should, could or can identify as Jewish or participate in Jewish life because of safety and security concerns is not one that should exist in the United States of America – certainly not in 2022.”
A critical nudge at the Tree of Life synagogue
SCN counts among its ranks Brad Orsini, who spent nearly three decades in the FBI before becoming a security director for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh in 2017. The role was like being the local FBI agent for the Jewish community, he told CNN.
It was early September 2018 when Orsini huddled for training with members of the Tree of Life synagogue, he recalled. Its rabbi, Jeffrey Myers, told Orsini that in accordance with his Jewish faith, he did not carry his cell phone on the Sabbath.
That prompted Orsini to open a “hard conversation” with the rabbi.
“I said this all the time – and I don’t say it anymore because it came true and this bothers me to this day,” Orsini told CNN. “I would say, ‘What do you do, how do we combat somebody that walks into our synagogue with an AR-15? Rabbi, we need to have someone with cell phones on.’”
The conversation changed the rabbi’s mind, Orsini said. Mere weeks later, a gunman stormed the Tree of Life synagogue during Shabbat services and opened fire, killing 11 people – most of them elderly – in the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in US history.
As gunfire erupted that day, the first call to 911 was made by Myers.
Orsini, who’s been credited by Tree of Life congregants like Steve Weiss for their survival, joined SCN the next year. He’s now the organization’s senior national security adviser, helping communities across the country employ the kind of tough lessons and security enhancements he enacted in Pittsburgh.
“We want it engrained, especially in communities that are targeted like the Jewish community,” Orsini said. “We owe it to our community to educate the community, to give them the tools to save themselves prior to law enforcement getting there.”
From security cameras to ‘Run, Hide, Fight’
SCN was founded in the early 2000s in response to a series of threats against the Jewish community – mostly by foreign terrorist organizations, Masters told CNN. But it’s only been in recent years, after Masters took over in 2017, that it has evolved into a fully fledged security operation, Orsini said.
Its mission relies on five pillars, Masters said: Intelligence and information sharing; physical security solutions and assessments; training and exercise; coordinating with local, state and federal law enforcement; and incident response and crisis management.
The work is tailored by community. “Every city’s a little different, every city has to work to their own culture,” Orsini said. “However, the basic tenets of a good program really remain the same.”
SCN works with regional Jewish federations to embed its security directors and advisers in places with significant Jewish populations. Elsewhere, it partners to support local security teams. Other SCN experts oversee the security of smaller Jewish communities across wide zones or offer support to swathes of the North American network.
SCN now has more than 50 security directors like Phil Niedringhaus, whose coverage area is Colorado. He relies on expertise and connections built over a career in law enforcement – including 29 years with the FBI – to provide some 105 Jewish organizations with best practices standardized by SCN.
They include threat vulnerability assessments, SCN security experts told CNN. Advisers visit a site like a synagogue and work with its leaders to see what kind of security is already in place and what gaps can be filled: Are there cameras? Does the organization have a relationship with local law enforcement? Has the congregation gotten training?
That last piece may be the most important, with three key tenets of its own, Orsini said: Trainees learn situational awareness to help identify potential threats; get Countering Active Threat Training, which includes the concept of “Run, Hide, Fight” and committing to action; and learn to “Stop the Bleed” to triage wounded or injured victims.
Another key component is coordinating with law enforcement at all levels before, during and after a crisis, Orsini said. On Sunday – just hours after the hostage attack at the synagogue in Colleyville, Texas – SCN convened a webinar for hundreds of Jewish community stakeholders, US Homeland Security officials and senior FBI personnel to talk about emergency plans.
Short of mass casualty events, SCN experts also might deal with vandalism at a synagogue or anti-Semitic fliers, sharing intelligence with local police and with SCN’s Operations Center and Duty Desk in Chicago, which are staffed by intelligence analysts around the clock who can share credible threats with other agencies.
When someone attacks the Jewish community, SCN notifies its directors across the country, keeping them updated on the latest information. Then, directors can coordinate increased patrols with local law enforcement and field calls from local Jewish leaders, offering advice or reassurance that the attack – like last weekend’s in Colleyville – looks to be an isolated incident.
Ultimately SCN’s goal is to create uniformity in security practices in Jewish spaces across the country, Masters said, in the same way Americans have spent decades learning uniform fire safety practices like “stop, drop and roll.”
It’s especially important, he said, because members of the Jewish community are “not static” – a Jewish child might grow up attending a day school in Chicago, go to summer camp in Wisconsin, go to college in New Orleans or get a job in Washington, DC.
The security measures should be the same everywhere, Masters said.
“Fear is paralyzing,” he said. “Empowerment is mobilizing.”
Balancing security with a welcoming faith
When Rabbi Tuvia Brander was in rabbinical school, he never took a course on security.
“I can tell you about Talmud, I can tell you about the Bible, I can tell you about Jewish law and Jewish history, and interface with other religions,” he said. “But I’m not a security expert.”
Still, soon after he became the mara d’atra – a spiritual leader – of Young Israel of West Hartford in Connecticut, Brander on his own formed a committee to assess security. While he hoped the Centrist Orthodox congregation would not face a threat, he wanted to be prepared.
His team had conversations with local police and fire departments – just as all the synagogues around them were doing. And while their local partners were great, Brander said, the planning was neither effective nor efficient.
“When we wanted to give training to congregants in the past about ‘Run, Hide, Fight,’ stuff like that … it was only us, it was whatever our institutional capacity was,” he said.
Then last year, the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford hired an SCN community security director, “who can take all the expertise, the wisdom, the training and the vast and deep resources of the Secure Community Network and institutionalize it in our community,” Brander said.
That director is now the “go-to person” for security, he said, streamlining the process and allowing Brander to focus more on the work of a rabbi, which now includes finding a balance between keeping his congregation safe and ensuring it remains true to its identity and welcoming to the community outside its walls.
“Nobody wants to go to worship in a fortress,” said Niedringhaus, the son of a Lutheran pastor, “because it doesn’t blend well for the mission of the organization or being part of the community or neighborhood you’re in.”
To that end, Brander’s congregation has what he described as “greeter guards” who are familiar with the congregation and can offer members a smile and a “Shabbat Shalom” – while also poised to identify suspicious activity.
“Sometimes people frame this as either/or: Can we be secure, and then we have to give up on the welcoming? What we really try to do is to double down on both,” Brander said.
Concerns have been raised – though never hard pushback – that security measures could make synagogues less welcoming, said Rabbi Scott Roland of Congregation Shaarey Tikvah near Cleveland, where the Jewish federation has its own skilled security experts who often partner with SCN.
But in fact, faith and security can go hand-in-hand, he said: “We can serve God and one another and also do so in safety and security.”
“Our tradition and our Torah implores us to choose life, to do what we can do to protect life,” Roland said. “And so the notion of securing our buildings and the safety of our communities is not separate from our religious lives. It’s very much an aspect of our religious lives, though we wish it didn’t have to be.”