Synagogues, police focus on security for high holidays


Synagogues in the Baltimore area are working with the Baltimore County Police Department and community organizations to ensure that congregants and visitors stay safe during the High Holidays.

Police Chief Melissa Hyatt (Courtesy of Jeremy Silbert)

“By this point, every synagogue is thinking about safety in some fashion,” said Howard Libit, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. “It’s important to take a few minutes to review your synagogue’s plan to see if things have changed.”

Rosh Hashanah begins at sundown on Sept. 25. The Baltimore County Police Department has not identified any recent or credible threats to the Baltimore Jewish Community, according to Police Chief Melissa Hyatt. But the amount of police involvement in synagogue security, particularly during the High Holidays, has increased steadily over the three years she has spent as police chief.

“Our deployment has grown and morphed in response to the communication we’ve had with community groups, as well as just looking at the best [security] practices across the country,” Hyatt said.

The Baltimore Jewish Council has been working with faith-based security organizations such as Shomrim of Baltimore, a volunteer safety patrol, and the Secure Community Network, the official security organization representing the North American Jewish community. The latter has created a series of webinars aimed at synagogues on how to assess risks and increase security during the High Holidays.

Some synagogues, such as Harford Chabad, will be having off-duty police officers serve as security guards during services. Harford Chabad is also implementing advance online registration for High Holiday services in order to create a safe environment for their congregants.

Others take less temporary measures, such as pursuing security grants in order to enhance their security systems. Recent advocacy work from the BJC led to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Maryland Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) awarding more than $8 million to religious institutions and other areas at risk of hate crimes.

The Baltimore Jewish Council newsletter notes that 36 grants were awarded to Jewish organizations and synagogues in the area as part of the Nonprofit Security Grant Program, totaling to $5.3 million.

Hyatt noted that the security services offered by the Baltimore County Police Department will always be free of charge, whether a synagogue has received a security grant or not, and are available to all religious institutions in the area. The police will send a team of trained specialists to do a security survey at their institution and point out any vulnerabilities.

“Anytime we’re at a meeting and have faith-based partners in the room, I always offer [these services],” Hyatt said.

She added that the police plan to bring in additional resources this year so synagogues can have increased security during the High Holidays and can take any precautions they feel are necessary.

“The police community and synagogues, we are all part of increasing security together,” she added. “It’s not just the police department. It’s such a community effort. And this is something that we take seriously in our department year-round.”

Frequently, though, antisemitic hate crimes are not the biggest worry for the police department during the High Holidays — instead, it’s street traffic. Hyatt encourages people to plan their routes to and from their synagogue and to be aware of their surroundings.

“And as always, if anyone sees anything suspicious, or something that doesn’t feel right, we want to know about it,” she said. “The old adage of ‘if you see something, say something’ is really quite important.”

The Baltimore County Police Department will also host a faith engagement symposium on Thursday, Sept. 15, where they plan to meet with religious institutions in Baltimore County and discuss the collaborative work they can do to increase their safety and security.

“Baltimore City and County police are so responsive on these issues, they’re great partners and have been for many years,” Libit said. “We’re so lucky to have law enforcement that is aware of the unique needs of the Jewish community, especially around the holidays.”

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