An in-depth interview by Lenny Giteck, publisher and editor
The past few years have brought a sharp rise in antisemitic extremism and episodes in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere. There is a level of Jew-hatred today not seen since the Nazi regime in Germany.
Community Security Service, founded in 2007, is a nonprofit organization whose mission is “Protecting Jewish Life and Jewish Way of Life.” CSS provides training in professional security techniques to members of the Jewish community who “stand ready as volunteers to protect their own against the increasing atmosphere of violent incidents and terrorism.”
Evan Bernstein recently became CEO of Community Security Service. Previously, he was Vice President, Northeast Division of the Antidefamation League. He also was part of the ADL’s senior national management team. Bernstein often speaks around the United States and abroad on the need to secure Jewish communities due to the dangerous rise in antisemitism.
We spoke with Bernstein about the resurgence of antisemitism and the increased security measures needed to protect Jewish communities and institutions. We published Part One of the interview last month. (To read it, click here.) Below is the second and final part.
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Evan, I know you don’t like to go into details of the tactics you teach and employ — for obvious reasons — but in general, what do you train volunteers to do?
A lot of it is about prevention. When you’re securing a perimeter, the most important thing is to show a presence. If potential perpetrators see that an institution is being monitored by people on the outside, there’s a good chance they’ll move on and not go after that target. In many instances you won’t even know you thwarted an attack.
The more numbers you show — I’m talking about people who have been trained about where to be and what to do in case of an emergency — the better the front-line safety measure for the shul.
When you think about all the possible scenarios terrorists could carry out — a vanload of men with submachine guns driving up to a synagogue on Yom Kippur, for example — it’s pretty scary. What could your volunteers do in a situation like that?
Regarding some of the worst-case scenarios, you just have to react as best as you can and revert back to your training. In terms of the most extreme cases, there may not be much you’ll be able to do. However, with best practices in training, coupled with basic security measures put in place, institutions are able to mitigate a wide range of threats.
Because of COVID-19, many synagogues are worried their members aren’t even able to pay their dues. How will congregations afford CSS in the current situation?
One plus about CSS is there’s no cost for the training to the synagogues. We do it for free. For congregations that can’t afford private security, we are far and away the most cost-effective option.
There’s no cost to the synagogues at all?
We’re being funded by donations, sponsors, and our founders. The only thing it costs synagogues is to pay for some of the equipment — walkie-talkie radios for example. I’m looking to raise funds so there is zero cost for the synagogues, including for the needed equipment.
Of course, if a congregation wants to take security to a higher level, other measures can be quite expensive. To put in bulletproof glass or safety doors or security cameras — all of that costs money.
Quite a few Jews are people of color. In theory, having volunteers outside synagogues could lead to racial profiling. Do you see that as a potential problem?
One of the things I’m adding at CSS is diversity and inclusion training. We’re starting a project to update all our trainings and curricula to make sure they’re relevant around the subject of Jews of color.
I come from the civil rights space. I did a tremendous amount of work in the African American community before I came to CSS. Understanding and embracing diversity, making sure it is seen as a positive rather than a negative — that will to be very important to CSS as we move forward.
How do you feel about the volunteers being armed with guns?
As a matter of safety, CSS does not discuss tactical operations as they relate to security activity and policy. This is critically important so as not to put any of the members of the Jewish community at risk by divulging specific approaches to security. Institutions that decide to have a presence of a firearm must adhere to all relevant protocols, including training at the highest levels, in order to keep the community and themselves safe.
Some people might argue that a program such as CSS is only going to make Jews paranoid and fearful of being involved with the Jewish community. How do you respond to that?
Change is always hard. How people feel when these processes alter what they’ve been used to — it can be tough. But people have not stopped going to synagogue in the UK or other European countries because of heightened security measures. They’ve understood those measures are part of what needs to happen in their societies to keep them as safe as possible. I hope American Jews will move in that direction as well.
We know that many in the Jewish community across the country have felt a higher level of vulnerability, particularly in wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in 2018 and antisemitic attacks in Monsey, New York, Jersey City, New Jersey, and other places. Especially in Brooklyn, many Jews stopped going to shul because they were afraid of being assaulted on the street.
Has that fear subsided over time?
Not necessarily. However, one positive is that Jews did start taking antisemitism much more seriously. You had 25,000 people — Jews and non-Jews — walking across the Brooklyn Bridge to protest antisemitism in the country in general and in New York City in particular.
Has the level of focus remained consistent since then?
Since COVID began, it has diminished to a certain extent. People are understandably fixated on the pandemic. Plus, some of the violent antisemitic acts have started to seem like a distant memory. And they were only seven or so months ago!
What worries me is that society will forget about the horrible antisemitic events that took place. To think antisemitism has somehow disappeared is very naïve. The fact is, we’re still dealing with assaults.
A few attacks took place in Brooklyn just in the last month. Recently there was a swastika incident at Stanford University. There was the incident in Los Angeles during a Black Lives Matter protest, where synagogues were targeted and vandalized. We witnessed a spate of incidents during this year’s High Holidays in September and October, where several communities in the U.S., Canada and Europe were targeted.
Black churches and mosques must face similar threats.
We want to start an interfaith advisory council made up of faith leaders from all different religions. It will be a forum for discussing our common safety concerns and the best security practices that need to be put in place.
What is your vision for how CSS will develop? What will its role be in the coming years?
I was brought in to professionalize and scale up the organization. That’s what I intend to do. Professionalizing our trainings and making them even better. Making sure our trainers are at the highest level. Making sure our curricula are best in class. Making sure the continuing education we do quarterly for our volunteers is best in class.
What do you mean by scaling up?
We’re in 100 congregations across the country now, but we need to be in thousands. My number one priority is to get into as many synagogues as possible. I want to be, minimally, in 50 more before the end of 2021. And I want to continue to scale up at a very high rate after that.
What obstacles are you facing?
Obviously, COVID is making it hard to expand into new shuls. It’s a process of getting a foot in the door. We’re creating a program called Entry Point, which has a dual meaning: entry point into CSS and entry point into a synagogue. It will be a one-evening training — probably over Zoom — to introduce congregations to CSS and provide some basic information about the security issues involved.
This is going to require a lot of groundwork, talking to rabbis and communal leaders in different cities, and getting into as many synagogues as possible.
Does the fact that most synagogues are not holding in-person services these days, that pretty much everything is happening on Zoom and similar platforms, make people less concerned about security issues?
I’m not sure, but I do know at some point the pandemic is going to end. Or, at least, we’ll have effective vaccines and therapeutics. When that day comes, I’m convinced people will go back to their synagogues.
They’ll want to be there for Shabbat, for the holidays, to celebrate family simchas, and so forth. For many Jews, the synagogue is the place where they mingle with their friends. I don’t think any of that is going to change once the pandemic is over.
Actually, now is an excellent opportunity for CSS to revamp and update a lot of the work we do, so that when we do come out of the pandemic, we’ll be even more relevant and effective.
In your relatively brief time as head of CSS, what has stuck out in your mind the most?
I’ve been extremely impressed by how committed the volunteers are to the cause. We only have four full-time employees at CSS, but we have thousands of volunteers around the country. They’re the ones who make the organization what it is. Even though most of them work and are raising families, many find time to put 10 or 20 hours a week into CSS. That is truly amazing to me. It’s why they’re the backbone of the organization
Photo: The Times of Israel
This concludes our in-depth, two-part interview with Evan Bernstein. We welcome your comments. Click here.
An in-depth interview by Lenny Giteck, publisher and editor