Anti-Semitic acts have been on the rise worldwide in recent years, but everything changed on the morning of Oct. 27, 2018, when a gunman walked into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa., killing 11 congregants.
“Up until that point in North America, most anti-Semitic acts had really been confined to physical acts against property,” says Yair Szlak, CEO of Federation CJA. “Pittsburgh was a turning point where European expression of anti-Semitism met the North American pavement.”
It was after the Passover attack in Poway, Ca., in the spring of 2019 that the leadership of Federation CJA decided to form the Community Security Network (CSN) to spearhead a city-wide effort to enhance security prevention and practices in Jewish institutions across Montreal. The goal was to ensure that all community institutions have security at the forefront of their decision making and are equipped to maintain consistent high-level security protocols. Institutions were invited to opt-in to the CSN.
CSN’s first step, Szlak says, was to create a cultural shift by enforcing increased preventative measures throughout the community. He notes that a greater tragedy was avoided on Yom Kippur in 2019 during a synagogue attack in Halle, Germany, because of locked doors and proper security training of congregants. “We want people to feel welcome, but at the same time we need them to feel safe, and sometimes those values conflict,” Szlak says. “It doesn’t matter how much money we invest in security technology – we could have the best security cameras in the world – but if the doors are open, we can’t prevent someone from coming in.”
The 34 organizations that opted in (encompassing 44 community buildings) were extensively audited earlier this year by a highly trained security consulting firm from Israel. The audit focused on their security practices, equipment and infrastructure. A trustee was named at each institution as a key point person and each organization was then provided with customized protocols tailored to their needs. While changes in practices have already begun to take place, updated equipment and infrastructure are currently being tendered and implementation will begin this June.
A community volunteer program has also been established as part of the CSN, similar to successful Jewish community security models around the world, where community members are trained to be the eyes and ears of their own institutions. “For example,” Szlak says, “the best person to identify something that’s irregular at a school is a parent who knows the parent body.” Volunteers have been meeting regularly since November for training sessions.
New security vehicles can also be found patrolling the community. Donated by Holand Automotive Group, the cars act as a visible deterrent and allow the Federation security team the flexibility to quickly go wherever needed.
Federation CJA has raised $5.7 million of its $10 million goal announced earlier this year for this initiative, and Szlak emphasizes that security should continue to be a priority for the community. “We are proud to be providing security to tens of thousands of community members,” he says. “It’s the responsibility of everybody in the community that believes in security to contribute to this important cause.”
While there is no specific threat against the Montreal Jewish community at this time, he says it’s important to stay vigilant and rest assured that there is a consistent community-wide effort in place. Community members should already be seeing changes taking place in their institutions and can expect more in the coming months. And of course, he says, “as always: if you see something, say something.”
For more information, visit federationcja.org/security.