Securing your synagogue – beyond guards, gates and gadgets


Guy Sapirstein, PhD

Resilience Consulting, LLC


The characteristic approach of most synagogues to the issue of security and emergency planning is to focus primarily on the most catastrophic hazards or risks that synagogues face – i.e. terrorism or similar high impact (but low probability) events. This type of focus leads to one of two typical responses: spend a lot of money on ‘guards and gadgets’, or do nothing (“it’s never going to happen”, or “there’s nothing we can do about it anyway”).

In a recent conversation with an account executive from a major security systems provider, he confessed his internal dilemma. “Organizations spend tens of thousands of dollars on (basic) security systems but don’t integrate the technology into a real plan and their internal process.  So basically they buy gadgets that, at best provide only a partial solution or at worst only help after the fact, rather than prevent or mitigate any crisis from taking place. On top of that, they don’t have the bandwidth to learn how to use the systems properly.” Like many other circumstances, simply throwing money at a problem does not necessarily solve it.

Adopting the second approach – doing nothing – ignores all the other (more likely) hazards that synagogues face: Fire, explosion (gas); Workplace violence (which could be related to domestic violence); Child Custody issues (especially if there is a preschool or religious school); Property Crime such as vandalism (including anti-Semitic activity) or theft; Environmental hazards (weather related, chemical spills); and more.

Many synagogues think of security in the context of High Holiday services.  Those services, which draw the largest crowds, are an example of an event that is difficult to keep secure and safe. Other than the sheer number of people attending, one has to consider elderly members, members who are unfamiliar with the building (those who come once or twice a year), and the visibility those services get. Some synagogues hire professional security guards, while others use members as ushers who hopefully receive a briefing on safety and security procedures. If those are the only steps taken (i.e. no comprehensive security strategy and plan), then their effect is merely helping people feel better (and perhaps directing traffic), rather than contributing to greater safety and security.

The synagogue that decides to invest time and resources in security and emergency planning often faces the “20-20-60 problem”: 20% of the people are adamant about instituting strict security measures; 20% of the people are opposed to any measures that will cause restriction or prevent easy access to the synagogue; and 60% of the people either do not care or do not express a strong opinion. This means that those tasked with the planning process have to cater to two divergent views. The challenge then, is to develop, implement, and maintain a culture of readiness (or preparedness) that suits the professional staff, the lay leadership, and the community at large. The best set of plans and technology are useless if people do not follow the procedures and policies. A perfect example of this was an organization that invested money in an electronic access control system, but discovered that staff people were leaving exterior doors propped open during the day (for ventilation and ease of access).

At the very least, an emergency response plan has to address four topics:

1.     Communication: How are people going to communicate during a crisis; how is the community (parents, members, board) going to be notified in the event of a crisis; who is responsible for talking with first responders, media, and others.

2.     Evacuation: Under what circumstances should an evacuation order be issued; how will people be alerted to the need to evacuate; what are the primary and secondary evacuation routes (including potential bottlenecks); where are the assembly areas (onsite and offsite); how will people (adults, children) be tracked and accounted for; what accommodations exist for people with disabilities (ADA compliance).

3.     Lockdown: Under what circumstances should an lockdown order be issued; how will people be alerted to the need to lockdown; what are the “safe spaces” where people can lockdown (and can those spaces hold everyone); how will people (adults, children) be tracked and accounted for; what accommodations exist for people with disabilities (ADA compliance).

4.     Shelter in place: Under what circumstances should a shelter in place order be issued; how will people be alerted to the need to shelter in place; who is responsible for implementing the shelter in place (locking all doors/windows, shutting down HVAC when necessary, etc.); how will people (adults, children) be tracked and accounted for; what accommodations exist for people with disabilities (ADA compliance).

It is important to keep in mind that many synagogues operate 7 days a week, during daytime hours as well as evenings, with different staff members present at different times and sometimes with no staff present (private events, etc.). The plan needs to address the “easy” times, but also the complex and chaotic times: e.g.: High Holidays, drop off and pickup (preschool / religious school), private events (e.g., bar/t mitzvah celebrations), evening meetings, etc.

A comprehensive emergency plan includes the technology (access control, alarm/panic buttons, proper lighting, etc.), the carefully thought out policies and procedures, but also attention to the training and practice of individuals. Aside from the standard evacuation drill due to a fire, there are other drills that should be practiced – the shelter in place (or “reverse evacuation” – people come in to the building from the outside); the lockdown; Mass notification, etc.  A commonly overlooked issue is calling 911.  The process is different based on whether the call was made from a landline or mobile phone.  In addition, some systems require dialing an access code. 

Developing a preparedness and security strategy is essential for the cost effective and efficient implementation of safety and security measures. Each component of a security plan (people, organizational processes, and technology) has its strengths and limitations. An effective planning process balances all three, thereby avoiding the pitfall of relying too heavily on one component or another. This balance provides cost containment (not buying unnecessary gadgets), buy-in and engagement by staff and community members, and finally a true sense that the leadership is doing things right by doing the right things.

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