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Opinion

My luggage is bullet proof

The tragedy of security training in the post-Pittsburgh era

JoAnn Abraham
JoAnn Abraham

For more than a year, Jewish federations across the country have been offering active-intruder and resilience training to faith-based organizations. It was at one such briefing in Pittsburgh, before the horrific Oct. 27 attack, that the leadership of the Tree of Life synagogue was instructed to carry cell phones on Shabbat, with the ringer off, so they could respond immediately should an emergency occur.

The key, they were told, is to react quickly, according to a former FBI official who led a training session that I recently attended.

I doubt anyone at that briefing thought they’d ever need to use their phone on Shabbat for these purposes. Yet because of the federation-sponsored training, Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers had his phone in his pocket. He made the first 911 call alerting responders to the attack.

Some at a security briefing on Nov. 29, organized by the Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ, said that keeping a phone active and on their person during Shabbat services violates the sanctity of the day. The FBI trainer countered that Hatzalah volunteers, an emergency medical responder group, often staffed by members of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities, wear their electronic communication devices under their tallitot on Shabbat. 

Not everyone was convinced, but the leaders of my synagogue, Temple Beth Ahm in Aberdeen, were, and now all the ushers carry cell phones in their pockets. 

The issue of security is not new to the Jewish community, but renewed awareness of its importance was heightened in the wake of 9/11. In 2001, I was working in downtown Manhattan for an international Jewish organization that was a known hater’s target. Our offices were on the 11th floor of a high-rise building. Within weeks after the Twin Towers fell, building management hired staff to stand in the lobby and scan IDs before allowing access to any of the elevators or stairways.

I didn’t think then — and don’t now — that those well-meaning men or their scans would stop a motivated assailant. My colleagues and I put our faith in Yehuda, an Israel Defense Forces-trained guard stationed in our office suite. Yet, Yehuda can’t be everywhere.

That may be why, in 2004, The Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations established the Secure Community Network (SCN), charging it with coordinating Jewish community awareness, preparedness, response, and resiliency.

Since then, most federations have helped synagogues and Jewish organizations, as well as their interfaith neighbors, assess the security of offices, schools, and places of worship, and leverage state and national resources to fund items like perimeter cameras, remote-controlled door locks, and exterior lighting. The federations’ outreach to local, state, and national law enforcement has provided the expertise that informed the active intruder briefings like the one the Tree of Life leaders attended.

Thanks to these briefings, I understand how to assess every public room I enter, noting exits and possible hiding places. I’ve learned that if I must hide in a room without a locked door, to try to barricade it or stop the door from opening. I know that if I’m in that room, I must find something to use as a weapon in case the door is breached, to defend myself and to buy me time to escape.

My luggage is bullet proof, something I wish I did not need to know. Thanks to the intruder exercises that are now as common in schools as fire drills, children know that bookbags make great shields.

And I’ve learned that in the event of an incursion, the people in the building are the true first responders. I know it is important that they, that I, react. That we all act fast.

I’m conflicted about all my newly acquired knowledge because — for the life of me — I wish I didn’t need to know these things I need to know to save my life. Still, I go to every briefing I can, and learn as much as I can, because should something happen, God forbid, I want to be one of the people interviewed in the aftermath, not one of those mourned.

For more information about Active-Intruder and Resilience Training, go to jewishheartnj.org/security or call Amy Keller, 732-588-1800.

JoAnn Abraham has held executive marketing and communications positions in Jewish federations and is on the board of Chhange: The Center for Holocaust, Human Rights, and Genocide Education.

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