When Malik Faisal Akram, a British-Pakistani terrorist, took four congregants hostage at a small-town Texas synagogue at this time last year, it became immediately clear that the event would have deep and lasting ramifications for the entire American Jewish community.
Although it wasn’t by any means the first violent attack on a synagogue in America, the incident at the Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville was still a five-alarm fire, reminding us that terrorism against Jews can happen at any time in any place.
It was noteworthy, however, that the spiritual leader and congregants of a smaller house of worship had been prepared to deal with such a situation. Colleyville Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker credited major Jewish organizations with training him to stay calm and wait for an opportunity to create a diversion. He ultimately hurled a chair at the terrorist, enabling his congregants to escape physical danger, though the trauma from the incident continues to this day.
Though Jewish Federations were already at work on a plan to guarantee the safety and security of each of our Jewish communities before Colleyville, we quickly sped up those efforts. Our plan, known as LiveSecure, was developed in close collaboration with the Secure Community Network. It committed us to build a comprehensive, state-of-the-art system of security to protect every one of the 146 Federation communities within three years.
To accomplish this goal, generous donors helped create a $62 million national fund, matched by donors in each community, to build local security programs and support SCN’s abilities to train and organize communications between these security programs.
At the time of the Tree of Life massacre in 2018, there were fewer than 30 communities with professional community security initiatives. Today, there are more than 70, with the number growing rapidly and new programs authorized in the last two months in places as diverse as San Diego, California; Houston, Texas; Birmingham, Alabama; Rockland County, New York; UJA-New York; and Jacksonville, Florida.
LiveSecure has already approved 27 grants to Federations, totaling a commitment of more than $11 million over three years. This includes the creation of 17 new community security initiatives.
Many smaller communities like Colleyville are finding it advantageous to collaborate with larger ones to ensure that their security needs are met. Eileen Freed, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Ann Arbor, said that through her participation in LiveSecure, her Federation is in the process of hiring a community security manager under the auspices of the community security program created and supported by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.
According to Freed, “A lot of communities like ours are struggling to put together their own security infrastructure with the limited resources they have available. By partnering with Detroit to hire our own director, we will have someone to implement a community-wide security plan, to offer regular security trainings and to build and maintain relationships with our local law enforcement.”
In southern New Jersey, William “Bud” Monaghan, the former police chief of Cherry Hill, who is now the regional security director for the local Federation, is enlisting four other Federations in the region to, in his words, “leverage the power of LiveSecure to create economies of scale.” Every cent goes further, he added, when it’s operated through a collective effort.
Jewish communities both large and small are also ramping up their efforts to attract federal funding for safety and security. Thanks to the advocacy efforts of our Jewish Federation system and other community partners, the Nonprofit Security Grant program has grown from $60 million at the time of the Tree of Life shootings to $305 million today, bringing over $100 million per year into Jewish communities alone.
Sadly, the threats are not decreasing but mushrooming. 2021 saw the highest number of antisemitic incidents on American soil since the Anti-Defamation League began tracking such events in 1979. A just-released survey by the ADL found that 85% of Americans believe in at least one antisemitic trope and 40% of Americans believe that Israel treats the Palestinians like the Nazis treated the Jews.
A National Terrorism Advisory Bulletin issued at the end of November by the Department of Homeland Security reported, “Lone offenders and small groups motivated by a range of ideological beliefs and/or personal grievances continue to pose a persistent and lethal threat to the homeland.” Potential targets, the bulletin adds, are “public gatherings, faith-based institutions, the LGBTQI+ community, schools and … racial and religious minorities.”
LiveSecure is a beacon of hope in the darkness. There is no greater value in Jewish tradition than the preservation of life, and LiveSecure is enabling Jews, for whom persecution is not new, to continue not just to survive but to thrive. That is why it’s so important for local donors to leverage LiveSecure’s matching fund by contributing to their communities’ security efforts, expanding our safety umbrella one community at a time.
At the Chanukah celebration at the White House last month, Rabbi Cytron-Walker said, “Our history is filled with tenacity and resilience. We have experienced the worst of humanity. And we refuse to give in to despair. In our darkest hours, we bring light. We bring light to our family; we bring light to our community. We bring light to our country; we bring light to our world.”
On this first anniversary of Rabbi Cytron-Walker’s ordeal, we affirm to him and the wider Jewish community that the safety and security of our community are being addressed and that our communities will be able to flourish and continue to bring light into the world.
Julie Platt is chair of the board of Jewish Federations of North America.