Camp: Security first: fun and adventure in a safe setting

Chicagoan Christie Tate isn’t one to be easily cowed.

A lawyer and writer, Tate lives with her husband and two kids on the city’s South Side, which has seen a surge in violent crime over the past year. Last year, her kids got a day off from school because of an active shooter threat. Over the summer, someone was murdered in her alley.

But while Tate doesn’t want to change her lifestyle out of fear, the recent spate of bomb threats at Jewish community centers across the country gave her pause as she considered whether to send her kids back to a JCC camp this summer.

“I don’t believe that we should go running and alter our lives and our summer plans because of threats,” Tate said. “But then, when I was doing my research, I saw the pictures of the kids standing on the sidewalk during a bomb threat, having been evacuated — it just became more real. I just thought, ‘Oh my God.’ I was swayed by that, which is probably a problem.”

Despite the wave of recent threats against Jewish institutions, coupled with a surge in anti-Semitic activity in recent months, no one has been seriously injured by a security breach at an American Jewish summer camp. The worst incident many camp leaders could remember was in 2012, when a group of intruders drove through a religious camp in Pennsylvania yelling anti-Semitic slurs and damaging property.

But many Jewish camp leaders aren’t taking any chances.

“The foundation of our success is all about the sacred trust that exists between our parents, our campers and our communities and our camps,” said Paul Reichenbach, director of camping and Israel programs for the Union for Reform Judaism, which operates 16 summer camps across the country. “Parents have to have confidence that the people and place to where they’re going to send their children, in whom they’re going to entrust their children, has as their highest priority their child’s welfare.”

As with many Jewish summer camps, the Reform movement’s security efforts were beefed up significantly  after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. The movement launched a security manual for their camps, created specific job requirements for camp safety personnel and established protocols for responding to a range of threats. It also retained the services of an Israeli security firm, which recommended security improvements from entrance gates to lighting and video surveillance. The camp’s security protocols are reviewed and updated annually.

Many involved in security at Jewish camps say that training and advance preparation are key — perhaps even more important than guards or barriers, both of which are increasingly common.

Among the preparedness steps camps are taking: the development of protocols that determine who does what in the event of an emergency. Preseason security training for camp staff has become commonplace. Camp leaders also are strengthening their relationships with local law enforcement, and many law enforcement agencies conduct annual site visits to familiarize themselves with the camp environment and provide advice.

“In the end, it’s all about training,” said Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. “Training itself builds awareness. You can never train enough. By continuing to train, you’re building that sort of level of awareness.”

Security at summer camps presents a number of unique challenges not faced by urban Jewish institutions, which typically have a defined perimeter and controlled access points. Camps are open, their borders often marked by little more than a tree line, and everyone involved in their security acknowledges the need to strike a balance between safety and preserving the sense of freedom and openness emblematic of the camping experience.

They also have to contend with an evolving security climate. While radical Muslims presented the foremost security challenge in the wake of 9/11, that is no longer the case. Many camp leaders noted the case of Anders Breivik, who gunned down 69 Norwegians at a summer camp on the island of Utoya in 2011, as well as the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut in 2012.

“My concern is not just from jihadists anymore,” said Paul Goldenberg, the director of the Secure Community Network, the organized American Jewish community’s security arm. “We’re starting to see a real uptick from the white supremacist side of the house right now. Some of these people are calling for death to the Jews. It’s pretty serious.”

Goldenberg stressed that he knows of no specific threats against Jewish camps and would not hesitate to send his own grandchildren to one, a sentiment shared by many other Jewish camp directors. And while most directors contacted for this story were hard-pressed to name a single serious security breach at a Jewish summer camp, a handful of recent incidents have raised the alarm.

In the summer of 2012, several intruders drove through Camp Bonim, a religious boys camp in rural Pennsylvania, according to local police who later arrested five suspects. In 2015, it was Camp Agudah Midwest, a religious camp in Michigan, where two vandals spray-painted a swastika and damaged a building, according to The Associated Press. That incident came two weeks after an attack at upstate New York’s Camp Karlin Stolin, in which three teenagers threw bottles and coins at campers and staff.

Officials at all three camps declined a request for comment. But security experts say the incidents only serve to highlight the dangerous level of unpreparedness at some Jewish summer camps.

“If anything, the risk has continued to rise,” said Joshua Gleis, a security consultant who works extensively with Jewish institutions. “I do think that camps certainly need to continue to button up security as you see schools, houses of worship, community centers doing right now. Many camps are not taking the actions that I think they should. While many have been improving, I know many camps that have still not changed their security structure significantly.”

Camp Seneca Lake in Honesdale, Pa., isn’t one of them. On the advice of the State Police, camp owner Irv Bader now has guards check all trucks entering the camp for deliveries. The camp has also hired 24-hour armed security — “not rent-a-cops,” Bader said — and installed a network of security cameras that are monitored around the clock. At night, the camp is illuminated with high-wattage lighting.

“It looks like daylight in the camp,” Bader said.

“I do it because it’s necessary,” he said of his security precautions. “The world is crazy today. And you’ve got too many crazies around. It’s a deterrent.”

Despite the heightened sensitivity, many camp directors say the most common threat to the well-being of campers comes not from violent attack, but from the weather.

Jamie Simon, the director of Camp Tawonga in Northern California, said she is far more concerned about an earthquake than an intruder. (In July 2013, her camp was hit by tragedy when a counselor died after a tree fell on her.) Still, the camp installed a video camera last year at its front gate so it can screen visitors remotely.

Camp Tamarack in Michigan is taking the camera tool even further. New technologies enable surveillance systems to learn about normal movement in an area and send an alert when it detects something anomalous.

For a camp like Tamarack, that sort of assistance is invaluable. The facility is among the largest Jewish residential camps in the country, covering more than 1,000 acres and 400 structures.

“It’s a force multiplier,” said Gary Sikorski, the director of communitywide security for the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit. “You can monitor areas that would be almost impossible to monitor with an individual.

Keep our shuls safe but still friendly

“Open for us the gates at the time of their closing.”

Worshippers conclude their Yom Kippur prayers every year with this refrain — a final supplication to be sealed in the Book of Life — during the Neilah Shearim service that closes the holiday.

Neilah Shearim, more commonly known as Neilah, literally means, “locking the gates.” As we pray for the metaphorical heavenly gates of forgiveness to remain open this Yom Kippur, how can we ensure that the physical gates of our Jewish institutions do the same?

Security measures at Jewish institutions, and for that matter all religious institutions, are an unfortunate priority these days. On the High Holy Days, we must protect ourselves with a security detail and sometimes even metal detectors and bag checks so that we may devote our time in synagogue to prayer instead of worry.

In the presence of heightened security at our religious institutions, it is essential that our synagogues still feel like warm and welcoming houses of worship, not like airports.

We can demonstrate hospitality by viewing our security professionals as not only the safe-keepers of our institutions, but as the individuals who create a welcoming atmosphere. They are the men and women that newcomers first encounter when entering our institutions. Let’s remind security personnel of the importance of a smile and friendly greeting even while they do the essential work of protecting our institutions.

If possible, volunteer greeters or staff members should be stationed at the entrance with the security professionals. They can help welcome worshippers and answer any questions about the synagogue, holidays and security process. A simple note of apology posted on the entrance to the building also helps mitigate any ill feelings that might emerge from the encounter with security.

Even for those on the inside of the Jewish community, security is an unwelcome challenge. On our way to pray in a building that we may visit regularly with no questioning at all, suddenly we are given the third degree on a few days of the year. But we accept the security because we understand its importance and already are comfortable within the walls of our Jewish institutions.

For newcomers at High Holy Day services, particularly the many friends and family of diverse religious backgrounds who may accompany us, the experience of approaching a Jewish institution may be intimidating on its own. Add in the metal detectors, security detail and questioning, and the experience of entering High Holy Days services becomes a deterrent from engaging with the Jewish community.

The movement for a “Big Tent Judaism” now gaining currency among hundreds of Jewish organizations encourages us to welcome all newcomers and lower barriers to participation. While security presence on the High Holy Days is non-negotiable for most Jewish institutions, there are ways we can open our gates even with the presence of security.

Each institution must evaluate with their security professionals how they can best welcome worshippers while maintaining their safety. We encourage Jewish organizations to meet with their staffs and boards in these crucial days before the High Holy Days to implement simple measures to ensure that our physical gates reflect the metaphorical heavenly gates, the very gates that open on Rosh Hashanah to provide all worshippers with the opportunity to seek repentance and renewal.

This year, use the High Holy Days to reflect on the physical and perceptual gates that act as barriers to the Jewish community. For one institution the gates may be security, and for another the gates may be language, literacy or cost.

This year — and for years to come — let’s take a cue from the High Holy Days liturgy and really open our gates to the many newcomers to our Jewish institutions. Let’s not miss this opportunity to demonstrate to newcomers and those returning to the Jewish community the Jewish value of hachnasat orechim, hospitality.

With sensitivity and action, we can work together to make sure that opening the gates at the time of their closing only exists as an element of the Yom Kippur liturgy.

Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky is the executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, the coordinating partner of the Big Tent Judaism Coalition ( Rabbi Edward M. Feinstein is the senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

Op-ed courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

High Security Holidays

Last Sunday, a bomb squad van, police cars and fire trucks rushed to Temple Beth Torah in Culver City.

Last Yom Kippur, a car crashed into a small synagogue on Pico Boulevard, and off-duty police officers immediately evacuated the nearby B’nai David-Judea.

While both incidences turned out to be false alarms — in Culver City someone had thrown out smoking dry ice, and the driver of the car that crashed into the Pico synagogue had suffered a heart attack — it shows, nonethless, that everyone’s on high alert.

With the High Holidays upon us, now coinciding as they often will with the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, and ongoing violence in Israel, the buzzword among Jewish leaders is "proactive." Fifth District City Councilman Jack Weiss uses it when describing the meetings he has led with synagogues, police and political leaders. Rabbis and synagogue administrators use it when describing security precautions they are implementing. The message is, there have been no threats or warnings of danger, but Jewish institutions are well prepared, just in case. As Anti-Defamation League (ADL) regional director Amanda Susskind says of a recent security meeting, "The motto for the day was vigilance, not panic."

"In some cases it’s as simple as installing some cameras. Be aware that shrubbery can be a hindrance to security," Susskind says. "It has to be tailored to the institution. We are asking people to be vigilant on behalf of their synagogue or the institutions they belong to. Like a Neighborhood Watch on a bigger scale."

The ADL’s director of security, Bob Martin, advises Jewish institutions and facilities on "target hardening — making the facility as unattractive as possible to people looking for trouble." Martin also stressed the importance of congregants being alert in the coming weeks, even though their synagogues have security plans. "Security is everybody’s business. It’s not like an umbrella — you don’t just put it up when you think it’s going to rain."

He also emphasized, "The time to find out who is the head of your local police division is not when you have a crisis."

Rabbi Denise Eger has not waited for a crisis. Her Congregation Kol Ami holds two High Holiday services which fall under two different law enforcement jurisdictions. At the congregation’s new building in West Hollywood, they have found sheriff’s deputies "extremely responsive, extremely helpful" in planning for the holidays; the larger rented-for-the-holidays facility in Hollywood is patrolled by the LAPD, who have been "outstanding" as well. "We have been in regular contact with our sheriffs," she says, and notes the added benefit of having LAPD Deputy Chief David Kalish as a congregant.

"This is obviously a year of great concern," admits Howard Lesner, executive director of Sinai Temple. Yet Lesner is comfortable with his temple’s increased security — including 24-hour guards, no parking anywhere around the synagogue and just single points of entry by car and by foot. "We’ve managed to do that without turning it into a prison," he says. "We have a direct relationship with the police, our security company is owned by police officers. If a police officer wants a cup of coffee, or to use the restroom, he knows Sinai is a good place to go."

Developing and strengthening the relationship between Jewish institutions and law enforcement was a major topic at the University of Judaism in August, when the ADL joined Weiss, L.A. Mayor James Hahn and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, and the Bureau of Jewish Education in leading a security forum geared toward the High Holidays. FBI Assistant Director Ron Iden addressed the group, as did the ADL’s Martin and LAPD Deputy Chief Willie Pannell.

"Historically, we’ve been involved with the Jewish community around the High Holidays," says Pannell, who was recently named deputy chief of operations-South Bureau. On September 11, he was still in his previous position of commander of the criminal intelligence bureau, which includes anti-terrorism. "Los Angeles has a large and prominent Jewish community, where a terrorist could get the most bang for the buck, if you want to use that expression," he says.

With Jewish community experience dating back to his days as a street cop, working the Pico-Robertson area and serving as an off-duty security officer at Wilshire Boulevard Temple for many years, Pannell has particular respect for the Museum of Tolerance, where Police Academy trainees are sensitized to the needs of the Jewish community. Because of this, and because of strong outreach and support from the Jewish community, he says, "There’s an awareness on the part of the street officer, a view that this is a serious concern, not just a community requesting something extra." Specifically, Pannell says. "What we’ve done over the years [is] to gear up during the summer, meet with local rabbis and prominent organizations. We’re telling our captains to be aware, particularly around prominent synagogues, to beef up with extra patrols, meet with Jewish leadership. We talk to them about private security, lighting, watching the packages that come in, entrances and exits."

"It’s a challenging yom tov," says Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, "It was challenging last year. We want to make our Jewish institutions warm, welcoming places — tempered with practical concerns."

Susskind sounds a note of hope: "Last year, we were all in a state of shock. I don’t think there was as careful planning as has been possible this year," she says. "At least on the West Coast, there was still a measure of disbelief that it could happen here. Then, the July 4 shooting at LAX. The rise in anti-Semitism around the world is also causing concern. And as the year unfolded and the conflict in Israel intensified, we have yet another cause for concern." The way Susskind sees it, "We’ve learned a lot in the past year."

Or, as Diamond says, "Things are in hand, let’s do what Jews do this time of year."