Awareness: An Approach to Safety and Security for the High Holidays

 In Building

On August 21, in partnership with the San Francisco based Jewish Community Federation, we welcomed community partners from 20 organizations for a security and safety program. With the High Holidays approaching, the session focused on the important role of ushers at services. The panel of experts included Rafi Brenner, Director of Jewish Community Security at the San Francisco based Jewish Community Federation, Matt Epstein, Director of Security and Safety at JCCSF and Ami Tobin, Director of Consulting, Training, and Special Operations for HighCom Security Services.

During the program, we learned that while many of us fear the rise of anti-Semitic acts, these actions are only coming from very few individuals. The best way to keep our communities safe is to be prepared and proactive. We first need to focus on preventative security, to ensure a safe environment around our buildings or meeting spaces before any potential issues arise. Only then should we focus on reactive security, reacting to a questionable situation only if necessary.

Here are some quick tips that may be useful for you or your synagogue this High Holiday season:

  1. To prevent any issues, we all need to remain aware of our surroundings, look up from our phones, take out our earbuds, and look behind us as we enter our buildings.
  2. It is also important to assess the appearance of others—but by no means should we be profiling them. The panel emphasized that “assessing appearance” means that we should pay attention to the behavioral choices that they make—What are they carrying? Are they wearing clothing that’s appropriate to the weather? What is their general demeanor? How are they walking? Do they seem happy, calm, nervous, confused? Are they moving fast and with purpose or slowly and hesitantly? We should never assess a person or situation based on defining characteristics like gender presentation, height, weight, or race. Staying safe is not about profiling people. It’s about being prepared and aware of our environment.
  3. Engaging with people is key. Those welcoming guests into the building should be interested in people when they greet them and ask open ended questions. Then, observe the response. When you say “shana tova” or “happy new year” do others say it back? Do they look at you and smile? Do they avoid eye contact? It’s important to remember that people who are neurodivergent may not make eye contact. As we engage with others, we need to use common sense. There are lots of perfectly normal reasons that someone may behave in a way that we may interpret as “off.” Is someone bringing a big gym bag because they are coming from the gym? Does this person look nervous because this is the first time they’re coming to their significant other’s synagogue? Many of the people coming to synagogue during the High Holidays attend services infrequently, and they may have a range of different comfort levels. These holidays give us the opportunity to put into practice the welcoming attitude we speak so often about, and also to monitor who is coming into our spaces. Asking follow up questions like “What can I do to help you get settled?” or ” “Do you know where to go?” can help someone feel welcome, and also keep the community secure.
  4. Know the protocols of your organization if you see something that is concerning to you. Who is the point person you should go to with questions? Make sure all ushers and greeters know where to bring their concerns.

For more information on how to prepare for the unexpected this High Holiday season, read this safety and security advice prepared by HighCom Security Services. Please share it with your community partners, volunteers, clergy, board members, and ushers. Shana tova!

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