June 14, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Four Common Mistakes in Shul Security

Recent national and international events no doubt reminded many of the vulnerability of our community. In the last few weeks, I have been contacted countless times with questions about shul and community security. From my experience as a consultant and trainer for many religious institutions, I have seen a few common and critical mistakes that could be avoided.

1. Who’s in Charge?

Many shuls do not identify and empower a person who is responsible for security, and who will work to implement the best security that their resources allow. Any successful business or operation has a hierarchy with defined roles and responsibilities. In some communities, this falls on the rabbi, the president or a reluctant layperson. In some cases, there are multiple people with competing plans who each think they are in charge. Some shuls have two different volunteer teams working simultaneously and separately, neither with a complete plan. These are recipes for inefficiency at best, and disaster at worst. Often, we want to believe that because a system has been in place for years, it’s working fine. In reality, the majority of security operations haven’t failed simply because they haven’t been tested, either in training or with real-life opposition. Without accountability for security, you are unlikely to create a clear, achievable and sustainable plan.

2. “We Pay for Guards”

These days most large congregations have at least one paid guard working during heavily attended services. As an industry insider, I’ve spotted some poor practices around shuls. I’ve seen guards spend significant time away from their post, sitting in cars, talking on phones, texting and otherwise being unaware of their surroundings. I’ve seen guards dressed inappropriately for their job, including a guard wearing a sweatshirt from a landscaping company while on high-visibility posts. In an extreme example, I’ve seen guards leave the location before the main service is over. I don’t mention these examples to simply blame the guards. Often, armed guards are off duty or retired police or corrections officers. These guards usually have the potential to be more professional, but if the clients don’t care, then why should the guards? In reality, the client wants to have professional security, but is unaware of what is necessary to achieve this goal. The client needs to clearly communicate with the guard or guard company regarding professional attire, start and end times and the guard’s role during normal and emergency operations.

I’ve found that most security clients try to pay as little as possible per hour per guard, but want to believe that they will have the Secret Service guarding their shul. Often the lower-priced guard companies are cutting corners somewhere, and the clients need to be more attentive. It’s entirely appropriate for the shul security lead to ask questions about the background and training of the guards. It’s not appropriate for each congregant to pose these questions to the guards when they are on post, but the client should do their due diligence when hiring guards.

3. Overworked and
Under-Prepared Volunteers

I’m a proponent of volunteer security teams as one element of a strong security plan. The cost/benefit calculation is clear. And the dedication of community members to the safety of their own family and friends is something you can’t pay for. However, volunteer teams have many challenges, starting with recruitment and retention. Often, volunteer security teams are overworked and under-prepared, with core members spending countless hours on posts. Team members usually receive just a few hours of general security training, without the follow-up of on-site, scenario-based training and drills. How many on the volunteer teams are realistically prepared to meet violence with violence? Furthermore, the paid and volunteer guards are often operating separately, and never training together.

4. Waiting for the Perfect Time

I’ve seen several variations of the theme of procrastination. “After we finish the new building, ” “We’re getting a new director in a few months” or “We’re waiting for grant money.” Grant money might help offset the cost of securing our religious spaces, but without it you still need security. Why wait for a new building before starting to recruit or train a volunteer team? The most precious part of your community is the people, not the building. There will never be a perfect time to take the next step in securing your shul. You probably won’t have more free time after the summer, or after the chagim. I encourage my clients to start improving their security posture or team immediately, but with sustainable changes. Often, there are meaningful steps that would cost little or no money. Take one step in the right direction, and more will follow.

It’s understandable why so many shuls share these challenges. It’s in our nature to avoid thinking about things that scare us or seem out of our control. The prospect of a violent attack on our religious institution might overwhelm some to the point of paralysis. Other congregations make security decisions with the best of intentions, but without the necessary background and knowledge. While I discourage shuls from changing security operations as a knee-jerk reaction to news headlines, let’s take this opportunity to reexamine our preparedness. Using my 24 years of experience in law enforcement and emergency response, I advise my clients to identify genuine risks, and together we create a realistic plan to mitigate them. I hope that by highlighting these common mistakes, more communities will take steps to address whatever deficiencies they have.


The author is a detective in a specialized unit in a major metropolitan police department. He has over 24 years experience preparing for and responding to emergencies of every scale. Since joining the department’s tactical team in 2010, Ethan has received top-level training and experience in special weapons, technical rescue, team tactics/Close Quarters Battle, active shooter response, dignitary protection, surveillance/counter-surveillance, maritime operations, and WMD/suicide bomber response. In addition to being an NRA certified instructor for law enforcement and civilian firearms courses, Ethan is a New York State DCJS certified instructor for police subjects and armed and unarmed guard training. He regularly trains armed professionals and private citizens in safe firearms handling in complex situations, fundamentals of marksmanship, shooting under stress, team tactics and communication and other relevant topics. He and his team of subject-matter experts consult with religious and commercial institutions regarding physical security, security teams and critical incident management.

Ethan can be reached at [email protected].

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