The High Holidays are a stressful time of year for those who work in synagogue security. For a few days in the fall, hundreds (if not thousands) of unfamiliar faces fill synagogues to the brim. Additionally, the number of reported anti-Semitic incidents has risen over the last year all over the country, and Baltimore is no exception. After a relatively low number of incidents between 2007 and 2016, there was an uptick in 2017, partially owing to the bomb threats at the Owings Mills and Park Heights JCC branches. Given the range of potential issues that can crop up, the High Holidays require institutions to look for external assistance when it comes to security.
“I think national and international unrest and the increase in anti-Semitic events with the tragic loss of life have increased greatly since my time working with the department,” said Keith Tiedemann, chief of security for the Baltimore Jewish Council and The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. “As these have increased, the level of coverage and vigilance has increased.”
Tiedemann, whose team provides services from security recommendations to active shooter drills, was a Baltimore police officer for 32 years before joining the BJC, achieving the rank of major in 2004. Synagogues are taking security more seriously in response to the incidents that can dominate the news, he says.
Three synagogues contacted for this story declined to speak to the JT about their security practices — or even about their reluctance to discuss security, as it’s all considered too risky. But Tiedemann did provide the JT with a BJC document that outlines categories of action that are recommended to synagogues in the area.
“We act as a source of information and coordinate with local and state law enforcement, as well as MCAC [the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center] and DHS [the U.S. Department of Homeland Security],” he said, “not only over the High Holidays, but on a daily basis to help ensure the safety of the Jewish community.”
This year’s document counsels synagogue leaders to take extra care in considering everything from the level of law-enforcement visibility during the High Holidays to the ways congregants can pitch in as ushers and greeters, among other roles. Synagogue leaders are encouraged to not only coordinate with local law enforcement, but to keep up with updates from the Anti-Defamation League and the Secure Communities Network, a nationwide security initiative of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
As for material support, the Baltimore Police Department will, as in years past, allocate extra foot patrol and vehicular patrols in the northwestern part of the city, according to Detective Jeremy Silbert, a spokesman for city police. Part of ensuring a safe High Holidays, he said, is the cooperation of local residents.
“If they see something, we want them to say something,” he said.
As in other years, Silbert said, the BPD will deploy mobile command units for residents who won’t use their phones during the High Holidays.
The rising concern for High Holiday security, Tiedemann said, stems from a combination of perception and reality — the frequency of anti-Semitic incidents has risen, but the added factor of news coverage affects the way security is approached. Synagogues might be “perfectly safe and secure,” he said. “But if they don’t feel safe, then they will want added security.”