Leaders Ask ‘What Makes Community Secure?’

Frank Riehl, in a dress shirt and neon POLICE vest, is standing speaking with a police officer.
Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia Senior Director of Security Frank Riehl (right) speaks with Sgt. William Frazier at a 2019 live active shooter training exercise. | Photo by Selah Maya Zighelboim

As the Colleyville hostage crisis evolved on Jan. 15, with gunman Malik Faisal Akram holding four hostages in Congregation Beth Israel synagogue, Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia Senior Director of Security Frank Riehl couldn’t help but think about the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue complex shooting more than three years prior.

“It was like, oh my goodness, kinda-sorta, ‘Here we go again’,” Riehl said. “Because the Tree of Life tragedy is still fresh in your mind.”

Riehl received an influx of requests from synagogues after the hostage crisis, asking him to assess or address the security infrastructure — or lack thereof — of their respective campuses. 

“There’s more of a sense of urgency when, unfortunately, there’s a major incident like Pittsburgh or like Colleyville,” Riehl said.

The threat of an antisemitic attack is felt by congregants as well.

“For many, it’s about fear, and it brings that to an immediacy,” Anti-Defamation League Philadelphia Regional Director Andrew Goretsky said. “‘Can I go to synagogue tomorrow? Can I send my child to Hebrew school?’”

While Colleyville hasn’t changed the approach Jewish leaders have taken regarding security, leaders said, it has renewed the desire to have a conversation about what a secure community looks like.

“For the Jewish community, it is really about the loss of that sense of security and wanting to figure out a way to retain that,” Goretsky said.

According to Patrick Daly, principal deputy director and chief operating officer at Secure Community Network, communities can take five steps to bolster their security.

Every organization interested in becoming more secure must first do a security assessment, Daly said.

For synagogues, this most likely looks like finding ways to improve the building’s security technologies, a process Riehl calls “physical hardening.” This means making sure the building has sufficient camera coverage; proper lighting in the parking lot and entrances; signage and shatter-resistant glass on the bottom floor — “things that they can implement that’ll hopefully make their facility less of a target,” Riehl said. 

Daly also emphasized the necessity of organizations having a plan in case of a security breach or emergency. This plan should include proactive steps one can take as well as response plans of where to go, what to do and what roles individuals play in case of a security breach or natural disaster. 

“We fall back on our training to what we had planned or prepared for, not necessarily rise to the occasion in a crisis,” Daly said.

Organizations should also leverage state and national resources, such as the Non-Profit Security Grant Program, which provides funding to nonprofits seeking increased security improvements at their facility. Pennsylvania announced a $4.5 million budgetary allocation for the state grants earlier this month.

“A lot of our facilities are smaller in size, and equipment doesn’t come cheap,” Riehl said.

Updating a campus with appropriate security technology can cost upward of $50-100,000, Riehl said.

While funding is game-changing for organizations, it’s not a perfect solution. The high demand for the grant means many applicants aren’t able to receive funding and can’t afford security updates without it.

Instead, Riehl said, organizations can invest in a cheaper, more accessible option in the meantime: security training, such as threat workshops, de-escalation training and training for synagogue ushers and greeters, another step Daly states was necessary for community safety.

SCN provides training to Jewish organizations across the country, including to Philadelphia synagogues. Over the pandemic, SCN provided training to 17,000 people. Nine thousand individuals attended an SCN webinar earlier this month, the organization’s largest event to date.

Congregation Beth Israel Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker cited SCN training as a helpful tool in navigating the hostage situation.

However, facility security isn’t an insular effort, Daly argued. He emphasized building good relationships with law enforcement as a step to ensuring community safety.

“One of the things that we know is in a hostage situation or active shooter situation, law enforcement response is critically important,” Daly said.

By giving law enforcement access to floor plans and familiarizing them with a facility’s layout, organizations can ensure police can respond more efficiently, he said.

Andre Goretsky is a white man with rectangular glasses and grey hair. He is wearing a dress shirt, tie and sweater and looking at the camera.
ADL Philadelphia Regional Director Andrew Goretsky | Photo by Lafayette Hill Studios

In addition to building relationships with law enforcement, Goretsky emphasized the importance of building relationships with a variety of community partners in advance of a crisis.

“We learned from this incident the importance of building relationships with ADL, SCN, law enforcement, your local Federation, other faith-based organizations, and crisis-support organizations. These already-established relationships enabled expedient response and support for the both the immediate and extended communities impacted,” Goretsky said.

For Jewish organizations — and individuals — looking to take a proactive approach, ADL Philadelphia Deputy Regional Director Robin Burstein reiterated reporting incidents of antisemitism to the ADL. 

Reporting smaller incidents of hate allows the ADL to have eyes on potential perpetrators of hate crimes. In the case of Pittsburgh, reports of previously unreported suspect Robert Gregory Bowers, who posted antisemitic comments against HIAS, could have helped identify him before the Tree of Life shooting or more immediately after.

“This guy was on nobody’s radar, not the FBI, not the ADL; no one reported him; no one knew him or brought him to anybody’s attention,” Burstein said.

For organizations such as the ADL and SCN, as well as law enforcement, educating community members on security resources is especially important following a crisis, such as Colleyville or Pittsburgh, Daly said. 

“Unfortunately, when these events occur, you have a short window of time when people are paying attention to them,” he said. “It was surprising to me after Pittsburgh, for some communities, it wasn’t until Poway occurred six months later that people recognized that this work was not a one-off … That this is an ongoing systemic issue and enduring threat.”

srogelberg@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0741


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