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Illustration by Security Management, iStock

Greet, Pray, Love

A man seeking the release of an imprisoned jihadist took a rabbi and three worshippers hostage at a Colleyville, Texas, synagogue on 15 January 2022 for several hours. Fortunately, all four victims were able to escape unharmed, which they attributed to crisis training they had received.

Though this incident returned the issue to the spotlight, attacks against Jewish institutions around the world are nothing new. In the last several years, adversaries have attacked Jewish houses of worship, museums, schools, stores, and community centers (JCCs) in Brussels, Belgium (Jewish Museum, 2014); Overland Park, Kansas (JCC, 2014); Paris, France (Jewish supermarket, 2015); Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (Tree of Life synagogue, 2018); Poway, California (Chabad synagogue, 2019); Jersey City, New Jersey (kosher supermarket, 2019); Halle, Germany (synagogue, 2019); and Denver, Colorado (yeshiva, a Jewish educational center, 2021).

Threat actors who target these facilities are diverse: neo-Nazis, white supremacists, anti-Israel activists, Islamists, conspiracy theorists, antisemites, and garden-variety criminals. The Internet and social media provide havens to likeminded hate-mongers where they nurture grudges, amplify perceived grievances, spread memetic warfare, and inspire each other to take physical action.

One synagogue and religious school in a major North American metropolitan area is among the thousands of religious institutions working to protect congregants, staff, clergy, and visitors while providing a sanctuary for worship and a gathering place for communal activities, events, and celebrations. While the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced overall security risk at the temple, vandals left their mark as recently as a few months ago.

About the Synagogue

An old joke tells of a Jewish man who is discovered by rescuers on a desert island with three huts. One is his home. The second is his synagogue. The third is the synagogue he would never set foot in. The truth underlying the humor is that no two synagogues are the same: they vary by denomination, orthodoxy, region, culture, and other factors. And that means that no two synagogues’ security is the same.

The synagogue in question here is one of the largest in the region, counting more than 1,000 families among its membership. As with many synagogues, the overall message is “Welcome the Stranger,” matched ideally by an open facility. During non-pandemic times, the grounds are awash with classes, game nights, interfaith discussions, meals, presentations, religious ceremonies, Torah study, and many other activities.

No two synagogues are the same: they vary by denomination, orthodoxy, region, culture, and other factors. And that means that no two synagogues’ security is the same.

The facility itself abuts a main road with heavy traffic. There is one main entrance, a private entrance for clergy, a loading dock door, and several doors that only open from the inside. A preschool area branches off the main lobby.

Existing Synagogue Security

Although the synagogue has dozens of staff and faculty, no single individual is specifically responsible for security. A volunteer security committee provides resources and recommendations, but security ultimately falls on the clergy, the executive director, the facilities manager, and the office staff.

After the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in 2018, this North American synagogue invested heavily in security, adding a biometrics- and fob-based access control system; upgrading the camera system; stationing an armed off-duty police officer and an unarmed security officer during key times; installing bollards; upgrading outdoor lighting; and laminating the glass doors at the front entrance. Procedural changes included keeping doors locked most of the day, frequently positioning a police cruiser in clear view from the road, revising emergency procedures, and adding a third defibrillator.

The security committee also introduced a greeter program whereby one or two congregants welcome guests on Saturday mornings, while simultaneously keeping an eye out for suspicious activity or concerning behavior—which they relay to police or security. However, many of the greeters are uncomfortable serving a security role due to lack of training and or experience in security.

Testing the Process

With events such as Bar and Bat Mitzvahs starting up again as COVID-19 restrictions are eased, and with religious school and pre-school back on site, the security committee recommended a review of security controls, communications, policies, procedures, and processes. The synagogue engaged one of the authors (Aric Mutchnick, inventor of the Red Ball Drills (RBD) crisis management training program) to perform a facility risk assessment and conduct training on crisis scenarios. Unlike many traditional crisis training exercises, RBD is nonthreatening and nondisruptive. It is also the only program of its kind with a SAFETY Act designation from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The program begins with a review of security/safety documents to better understand existing policies and protocols. Then, Mutchnick and a colleague tour the site and talk to occupants to fully understand the facility, operations, and organizational culture. This culminates in a discussion with leadership on the most pertinent, site-specific scenarios they would like to run. Then facility management sends a memo to staff and other stakeholders informing them that in the coming days if a person approaches them and produces a red ball (a small version of a dodgeball), it means they are about to have a conversation about a crisis event. There are no aggressive actions from the team, and no physical response is required from participants.

During the actual exercise, a role player discreetly presents the red ball to a participant. The moderator approaches and informs him or her that the drill is not a test. Instead, it is a conversation about a crisis event, and the participant’s help is essentially to discuss process. The synagogue liked this approach because interviewees are treated like subject matter experts who are helping to improve the security program from the ground up, so they are likely to buy into recommendations that emerge from the training. In addition, the program doesn’t frighten anyone, nor would anyone in a crowded synagogue realize a drill is taking place unless they received the initial memo.

The synagogue had Mutchnick perform the drills on two separate days: a Saturday, during worship services, and a weekday, when the preschool is in session. Mutchnick worked with the security committee to develop about 15 to 20 scenarios, of which they ran exercises about shooters or potential shooters, suspicious activity, and vandalism.

See Something, Say Something…Or Not

Almost everyone is familiar with “See Something, Say Something,” the basic level of training for the public on suspicious activity. Staff and congregants know that training well, but it became clear early in the exercise that “See Something, Say Something” can be difficult to execute in practice sessions.

The training team began a scenario involving a suspicious person by presenting the red ball to a member of the clergy. Upon learning of the scenario, the clergy member smiled and said it was a good time for that exercise. He described a recent experience running an outdoor service, in which an out-of-place person approached the congregation, moving closer to the front. Nobody engaged with the person, and he eventually left.

Asked why he had not done anything, the clergy member said that the person was Black, and he did not want to appear to be profiling a person based on color—even though it had been the visitor’s furtive behavior that made him take notice. The clergy member did not want to confront the stranger because the congregation has a welcoming environment. He also did not express concerns to security or the police officer present because the clergy member was concerned that he could be wrong, and security personnel might treat the person roughly based on his report.

Two important elements of process came from this discussion: First, ushers, greeters, staff, and even congregants need to have the appropriate language tools to approach people to determine whether they warrant further scrutiny by security staff. This could be as simple as saying, “Hi there! Welcome! I do not think we have met, it’s a pleasure. Are you new to the synagogue?”

The reaction to this greeting will often demonstrate whether security needs to be notified. This approach maintains the welcoming culture of the organization by avoiding a more abrasive or adversarial verbal challenge to a suspicious person.

Second, staff and congregants must clearly understand how security and police will respond to a report of suspicious activity.

For example, if a person who is not dressed for services walks into the house of worship with a duffel bag, the police or guard would not lay hands on the person or the bag. Instead, they would greet the person, explain that they rarely see duffel bags in the synagogue, and ask to please take a quick look inside. Chances are the bag contains clothes for a Bar Mitzvah sleepover or supplies or provisions for the school or synagogue. If the person complies, the officer would look through the bag then take the person to a safe place to store the bag so it would not concern other worshippers. If the person refused, ran, or otherwise caused concern, the officer would likely physically intervene. In sum, the person is treated kindly and civilly unless he or she does something alarming or threatening.

Although the synagogue has dozens of staff and faculty, no single individual is specifically responsible for security.

Communicating that standard of response to the congregation and relevant stakeholders can reduce concerns about reporting suspicious activity so [that] security and police can focus on behavior to determine whether action is warranted. If personnel understand that their report will not precipitate an immediate removal or mistreatment of the suspect, they will be much more likely to report concerns.

Invite and Inform

Synagogues across the United States are hiring uniformed police officers to provide a professional security presence during services, school, and high holidays. At this North American synagogue, police officers have successfully integrated with the synagogue community and the kids at the school. Students look forward to seeing them, and congregants thank them for their presence.

A second scenario the synagogue practiced involved someone with a long rifle shooting at a police cruiser in the parking lot. Mutchnick and colleague Katherine Schweit, who oversaw the FBI’s active shooter training program from 2013 to 2017, approached the police officer, who was sitting behind the front desk, with the red ball. The police officer said he would immediately call for back-up, but then indicated that the desk was the worst place to be. Asked why he was sitting there, the officer responded that when he arrived, it seemed the expectation of the synagogue was that he should sit behind the desk and monitor the video surveillance system.

The officer went on to say that that he had never received any expectations for his role. When prompted, the officer said that he would benefit from a one-page document with basic post orders, critical contact information, and lockdown policies, at a minimum. A no-cost item, this basic information sheet could drastically improve the dynamics of police presence at a facility. It emerged that the officer welcomed guidance on where he should position himself based on site concerns, when to conduct perimeter patrols, and other details.

Return from COVID-19

The team ran through the active shooter scenarios with clergy, faculty, facilities staff, greeters, police, and security, identifying key issues in procedures and protocol that required attention. In many cases, interviewees said they would initiate a lockdown—but they did not know what that actually meant. No lockdown training or even basic emergency response training occurred before the COVID-19 pandemic, and none had been scheduled during it. Synagogue management realized that all personnel returning to the facility should be treated almost as if they were new hires. AED, crisis management, fire, and first aid training needed to be scheduled immediately to ensure understanding by all relevant personnel.

For the situation in which shots are fired at a police car, for example, the school director and staff were aware that lockdown procedures were available but could not find them or remember the process.

Based on the discussion of process, synagogue management realized that it would have to assign specific roles to staff during lockdown to warn personnel who may be at recess or in an activity room because they had no mass communication plan. This means that assigned staff had to either text or physically move to each area to communicate the threat—and only if it was safe to do so.


Another training scenario began with the head of facilities. Upon his arrival early in the morning, the scenario outlined, he discovers a swastika scrawled on the front entrance.

Although this type of incident is much more likely than an active shooter, no protocols existed for such an event. Initially, the head of facilities said he would text the executive director, lock the doors, and wait in the building.

After discussion, he came up with more useful protocols on his own. Texts might not be seen immediately. Instead, he would call the executive director and then the police, so that they could begin their investigation and determine whether there was an ongoing threat. Additionally, he would call the school director so she could decide how to move forward with parents and classes. Then he would wait for directions from the executive director.

Ongoing, basic level training remains a crucial need.

The ball next went to the school director to discuss what she would do if she received notification of a swastika painted on the front entrance. She identified the need to develop messaging for parents and the need for clear protocol on whether to keep the school open that day.

Findings and Recommendations

A week after the training sessions, Mutchnick issued a report that summarized his findings and included a list of recommendations. The three principal findings involved the lack of a person responsible and accountable for security and the absence of a crisis management team; lack of mass communication capability and an overall crisis management plan; and lack of articulated expectations and post orders for police and security.

Additionally, the team identified the following elements as critical to a more effective security program.

Overview document. One of the main recommendations was to create a one-pager for police and security. That document would contain:

  • Expectations of service (e.g., police should walk the perimeter first thing in the morning and sweep the parking lot),
  • Contact info for key staff and first responders,
  • Description of building security features,
  • Door lock/unlock schedules,
  • Explanation of how to use the door control,
  • School drop-off and pick-up times,
  • Worship service schedule and daily activities/events,
  • Map of the building with exits, and
  • Name and phone number of the on-duty security guard.

Communications. Communications are the most critical aspect of any crisis preparation/response plan. Suggestions included:

  • Radio training for all staff;
  • Supplying the security guard, police officer, and key personnel with radios and making sure they were kept on;
  • Training key personnel on using the existing PA system;
  • Creating emergency-text groups; and
  • Requiring staff to connect to the building’s Wi-Fi on their cell phones to ensure connectivity in remote parts of the building where cell service is limited.

Training. Finally, ongoing, basic level training remains a crucial need. Mutchnick recommended non-invasive, trauma-informed active shooter training (which is often provided gratis by Jewish security organizations) for key staff, clergy, and congregants. Greeters would benefit from instruction on their duties and expectations of them, including specific language on addressing people who look out of place. Other training should be conducted on lockdown procedures, radio use, and basic crisis response. The synagogue has already begun putting these measures in place.

Unfortunately, anti-Semitic incidents remain frequent. The year 2021 marked a decade-high level of global antisemitic incidents, an average of more than 10 per day reported, according to a report by World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency. Synagogues should focus on process, continually reassess their risk, adjust security accordingly, and practice the most likely scenarios, taking into account their community’s culture, location, profile, and resources.


Michael Gips is the principal of Global Insights in Professional Security. He was previously the chief global knowledge and learning officer at ASIS International.

Aric Mutchnick is the president/CEO of Experior Group Inc. He is a former paratrooper with the Israeli Defense Force and has been providing security consulting and training for more than 20 years.