Security has become a priority for the Jewish community in recent years.
In October, the Jewish Federations of North America announced a $54 million effort to help local Jewish communities secure their buildings. JFNA President and CEO Eric Fingerhut called it “a permanent new cost to the Jewish community.”
But security, according to a new Philadelphia nonprofit, the Jewish Emergency Preparedness Project, goes deeper than cameras, locks and other equipment to protect buildings. Security, at its deepest level, means people who are prepared to defend themselves.
That’s why two area residents and Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia donors Vitaly Rakhman and Sherrie Savett are starting JEPP. The nonprofit will offer emergency preparedness training to Jewish organizations in the region, including synagogues, community centers and schools.
The Jewish Federation is a partner in the effort.
Rakhman and Savett want Jews to be ready for severe storms, overt antisemitism, missing persons, active shooters and riots, among other potentially dangerous events.
Yoni Ari, JEPP’s interim CEO, recommends that organizations start with a risk assessment and the development of an emergency protocol. Savett believes that, to stay ready, Jewish communities should organize two training sessions per year.
JEPP is ready to offer security experts who can help with both.
“This is an ongoing thing,” Ari said. “To help the Jewish community build resiliency.”
Recent tragedies, like the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue complex shooting in Pittsburgh and the 2019 Poway synagogue shooting in California, reinforced that need in the consciousness of American Jewish leaders.
But the idea for JEPP came from the life experience of Rakhman. The Russian immigrant’s great-grandparents were killed in the Nazi-perpetrated Babi Yar massacre of more than 30,000 Jews in Ukraine.
His childhood books, as he remembers them, were illustrations of the “terrible things the Nazis did.”
“My deep thought was, ‘Never again,’” Rakhman said. “Never again that they will slaughter Jews like animals.”
The Bucks County resident’s historical memory reminded him that Jews could always be blamed. And this modern era of turbulent events, like COVID-19, reminded him that they could be again, at any time, for any traumatic incident.
“We know what’s happened in Egypt, Babylon, Spain, France, Russia, Poland,” Rakhman said. “Sometimes the young generation can forget it.”
According to Rakhman, though, remembering is not enough. Jewish communities also need to act.
JEPP’s guiding principle is that Jews should assume that antisemitic incidents will happen. Therefore, taking precautions on a perennial basis is necessary.
As Savett explained, no one can know exactly when such attacks will occur. But if a community has structures in place to handle crises, its people will be more confident and clear in the moment.
“You have to train people,” Savett said. “You have to train their memories.”
At this point, though, Jewish communities in the Philadelphia area are not well-trained.
Earlier this year, JEPP did a survey of Jewish organizations on the Main Line.
“We found out no one has a plan,” Savett said.
In November, JEPP organized a conference for about 25 institutions in the region.
“Most of them came to the conclusion that they weren’t ready,” Savett said.
Many local Jewish organizations have already added security guards, locks and other forms of protection. But if a crisis were to hit, the people in those communities would probably just call the police.
According to Ari, a 20-plus year veteran in the community security field, that is not a reliable option. Police officers often take time to arrive at a scene.
“We have to be ready,” he said. “When something happens, you have people that can run
Savett agrees. She thinks the first step for local organizations is to identify the strengths of their members. Who could provide medical help? Who could offer transportation assistance?
Those are the questions that leaders need to ask while developing their protocol.
They also need to reconsider their communication systems. Email chains are not fast or direct enough in a crisis.
“No one looks at email in a crisis,” she said.
Local organizations interested in JEPP’s help should visit the nonprofit’s website at jepp365.org.
JEPP is hoping that organizations who receive JFNA security grants from the $54 million program will use the money on its services. The local Jewish Federation is distributing the Philly allotment of JFNA security money to area communities.
“We call on Jewish organizations applying for the security grant to ask for 50 percent for training so they know what to do,” Ari said.
But Ari also said those percentages could vary depending on the organization’s needs.
“Eighty-five percent can go to physical security and 15 percent to training,” he concluded.