The importance of being prepared for anything
Violent anti-Semitism continues to be a threat, as 2021 was a record year for this toxic version of hate. 2021 saw an increase in attacks on Jews not only on social media, but, disturbingly, in person. We once believed something like this couldn’t happen in America. But as 2022 began, we started off with a dramatic but short-lived hostage situation in Colleyville, Texas, which showed that not only violent white supremacism is a threat, but Islamist terrorism as well.
A number of factors (or “reasons,” as if to justify) are blamed for these attacks, ranging from last year’s conflict in Gaza to the ongoing pandemic, and, according to this NPR article “nearly one out of every four Jews in the U.S. has been the subject of antisemitism over the past year.”
Knowing that, the situation which unfolded in Colleyville should not have come as a surprise. The difference in this situation was advance preparation by the leadership and the congregation. This event showed that congregants need to be involved and trained properly for an active shooter or hostage situation. We cannot rely solely on paid security and police alone, and everyone should be trained to help defuse a possible tragedy.
What happened at Beth Israel?
This was a typical Covid-era Saturday morning prayer service at Congregation Beth Israel, where Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker was live streaming the service to congregants at home. The rabbi and three others welcomed in Malik Faisal Akram, as he claimed to be in search of shelter, who then used this gesture of goodwill to hold them hostage at gunpoint for 11 hours.
Though Akram ranted about releasing the infamous “Lady Al Qaeda,” Aafia Siddiqui, from prison, the incident has been labeled as terrorism (with anti-Semitic intent) given the attacker’s rants against Jews and his decision to hold a synagogue hostage.
During the 11-hour standoff, authorities (including more than 200 FBI and SWAT team members) surrounded the synagogue. They spoke with the attacker (who was communicative), and had to eventually neutralize him when the situation started to unravel, fearing he would harm the hostages. The hero in this drama was the rabbi, who threw a chair at the attacker to distract him so the other hostages could flee.
The importance of training
The rabbi of the congregation credited previous training for the outcome. This situation shows the need for training more volunteers in congregations across the US to provide active security for their institutions. We always stress the importance of being vigilant, but lives were saved thanks to the work of organizations such as the Community Security Service (CSS) in helping the community be prepared.
CSS is an organization which safeguards local communities by training volunteers in professional security techniques and raising public awareness about safety issues. The more people are trained to deal with a possible security situation, the more prepared we all are when one inevitably happens.
Study after study shows a rising level of anti-Semitism in the country and across the globe. If history has taught the community anything, it is that preparation is key. Evan Bernstein, the CEO and National Director of CSS, believes that “the more an institution shows it’s a hard target, the less likely it is that someone will go after that target,” and that “we want to make synagogues a hard target.”
The challenge for the Jewish community and other religious communities is how to stay open and receptive to outsiders, while still protecting themselves. We do not want heavily armed guards outside of synagogues like in Western Europe, but there are other, more subtle, methods to employ.
The Hill covers threats specifically facing the Jewish community, among all of the other categories of hate crime: “But the Jewish community certainly bears a disproportionate brunt of that hatred. Those same FBI statistics put the last year on track for the highest instances of hate since 2001, a significant portion of which were fueled by religious bigotry. Of those, some 57 percent targeted Jews, a population that represents just 2 percent of the population.”
Threats against houses of worship, such as what transpired earlier this month are not going away. With ever-heightening political and cultural tension in the United States, and midterm elections later this year, it is worth reflecting on the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh, and what could happen if we are not prepared. In the meantime, members of congregations across the country should continue training on methods to best protect themselves from the worst.