Jews ‘Taking Ownership of Their Own Security’ Is Key to Countering Antisemitic Threat in US, Top Community Official Argues
by Ben Cohen
Over the space of less than three years, the challenge of securing Jewish communities from outside attack leapt to the top of the communal agenda with an urgency that surprised even the most seasoned observers of American Jewish life.
The shift in communal priorities reflected the harsh reality that even in the US, violence against Jews has increasingly become, in the carefully-chosen word of one of the community’s leading security practitioners, “normalized.”
“What we accept as normal behavior in our society has dramatically changed,” observed Evan Bernstein — the chief executive of the Community Security Service (CSS), a volunteer-based security agency — during an extensive conversation with The Algemeiner this week. “For example, think about peoples’ response to mass shootings. Before the pandemic, we were seeing more and more of these. Each time there was less of a reaction, and it became more and more normalized.”
Bernstein believes that the same desensitizing process has been at work when it comes to outrages against Jews in recent years.
“I’ve been looking at this in real time over a seven-year period,” he explained. Studying the twists and turns of anti-Jewish prejudice has helped Bernstein understand that hatred is a complex and frequently underhand phenomenon, that can “easily take you to places in our society that we hoped we’d never get to.”
In Bernstein’s view, the present time is one of those unfortunate junctures. Yet he also sees an important opportunity for Jewish communities to finally take control over their own security, through building local volunteer security teams in synagogues and other community bodies that work closely with law enforcement.
A former director of the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) office serving the New York and New Jersey regions, Bernstein took the helm of CSS in June 2020. It was a particularly daunting time to do so. The previous 20 months had witnessed the Oct. 27, 2018 massacre of 11 worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh; the April, 27, 2019 murder of one congregant and the wounding of three more in a shooting at the Chabad center in Poway, California; the horrifying deaths of three civilians and one police officer when two armed assailants opened fire on a kosher market in Jersey City on Dec. 10, 2019; and the death of one guest and the wounding of three more in a stabbing attack at a Dec. 28, 2019 Chanukah party at the home of Rabbi Chaim Rotenberg in Monsey, NY.
All of these episodes were part of a broader pattern suggesting that antisemitic tropes and rhetoric were being steadily emboldened. FBI data for 2019 revealed that hate crimes in the US were at their highest level in over a decade, and that Jews were the target of a full 60 percent of those attacks. As Bernstein noted, by the beginning of 2020, antisemitism in America had finally become a topic of national conversation that was best symbolized by the “No Hate, No Fear” demonstration on Jan. 5, in which thousands of protesters descended upon the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City.
And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Antisemitism and prejudice more widely did not go into lockdown, however, enjoying new outlets and opportunities through social media on a global scale. “To think that antisemitism is any less of a problem since the pandemic is absolutely not the case,” Bernstein said. “And as we come out of the pandemic, I’m concerned by what that’s going to look like.”
As with everyone else, for the Jewish community, the end of social distancing cannot come soon enough. At this point, it remains distinctly possible that by the time the High Holidays arrive in early September, synagogue services and social gatherings will have resumed to a greater degree. What worries Bernstein is that over the same period, antisemitic conspiracy theories — especially those connected to the virus — will have mushroomed across the internet, stoking hatreds that can manifest most lethally in real-world attacks.
In terms of both temperament and philosophy, Bernstein is not a panic-monger, and says he doesn’t want the community he serves to panic either. If the current context should teach us anything, he thinks, it is that we are not obliged to be passive observers when it comes to the safety of our schools and synagogues.
Indeed, Bernstein noted with admiration that several Jewish communities in Latin America and Europe have a long-established tradition of volunteer security, which has not been the case in the US. CSS aims to change that by recruiting volunteers from among American Jews who will manage security for their communities by liaising with law enforcement, carrying out regular security checks, monitoring local extremist activity and other tasks.
Bernstein spoke with particular enthusiasm about “Entry Point” — a digital platform which he presents as the main instrument for building a national volunteer network. “It’s basic security training,” he said. “If you’re building a base of volunteers, they have to be educated to be proactive on security. With this platform, we provide a one-hour training for individual synagogues, and our goal is to assist those hundreds of synagogues across the country to eventually develop their own security team that has an ongoing relationship with CSS.”
Bernstein cited a recent feasibility study in which 20 synagogues gave an enthused response to the “Entry Point” scheme as a simple and effective way of learning security best practices. The digital format of the training means that it can be rolled out on a national scale with ease as well, he pointed out. Bernstein said that CSS was currently in “Seattle, Denver, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Boston, New York City, Westchester, New Jersey, Long Island, Connecticut and North Carolina” with plans to expand further afield.
“We need to be more present in the Midwest, and in cities like San Francisco, Chicago and Cleveland,” Bernstein said. CSS’s “number one priority,” he said, was extending its footprint in South Florida, home to a community of nearly 600,000 Jews.
Bernstein remains aware that antisemitism in America exists across the spectrum, and that antisemitic violence and threats can and does come from white supremacists, extreme anti-Zionists and marginal black nationalist groups alike.
“Our community needs to wake up and take ownership over protecting themselves,” Bernstein argued. “Law enforcement desperately needs our community to be involved in security, because nobody is going to do a more diligent job than the people whose families are inside the synagogue. These are the people who will check doors and locks, who will do a ‘walk through’ before the service, who will be able to confirm that everything is where it needs to be.”
Bernstein gave the example of an incident in the Belgian city of Antwerp — home to a large community of Orthodox Jews — in which a man dressed in Haredi garb cycled past a police officer who was guarding the approach to a synagogue one Shabbat morning. It was the security volunteers who prevented the man from entering the synagogue, Bernstein said, because they had understood immediately that an Orthodox Jew would not violate Shabbat laws by traveling on a bicycle.
“That’s how you stop incidents from happening,” Bernstein emphasized. “With the intimate, local knowledge you have of your shul and your community.”