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Synagogue attack puts Jewish community on edge

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(NEW YORK) — Recent attacks on Jewish institutions — including the 10-hour-long hostage situation at a synagogue in Texas on Jan. 15 — have cast a dark shadow on the simple act of walking into a Jewish institution.

The faith-based attacks have forced community leaders to prioritize security and safety precautions to maintain their ability to pray, congregate and practice their faith, Eric Fingerhut, the president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, told ABC News.

“This is not new,” Fingerhut said. “This has been a particularly violent period of attacks on Jewish institutions and on Jewish community.”

On Jan. 15, an armed suspect that claimed to have bombs took a rabbi and three others hostage at the Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who was held hostage, told reporters that his training with the Jewish-led security training organization Secure Community Network helped get his congregants out safely.

Since antisemitism is still present in the U.S., protecting one’s congregation is key, community leaders say. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) tracked 2,024 antisemitic incidents in 2020, the third-highest year on record since the organization began tracking these incidents in 1979.

Faith-based communities will “likely” continue to be the target of violence “by both domestic violent extremists and those inspired by foreign terrorists,” according to a note sent on Monday to law enforcement officials and houses of worship nationwide by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security.

“The fact that he’d been trained like so many members of the clergy and other communal leaders in active shooter drills, in hostage crises, and how to deal with terrorist scenarios unfolding in your synagogue … it’s actually not a surprise,” ADL’s CEO and National Director Jonathan Greenblatt told ABC News.

“We are in an environment where, whether you run a synagogue or a JCC [Jewish community center] or a day school or a summer camp, you need to take action and be vigilant because of the very real threat of violence,” Greenblatt said.

The Secure Community Network is a national security initiative composed of former high-level law enforcement officials that work across 146 federations and more than 300 individual groups. They train religious leaders in threat and vulnerability assessments, training and drill programs.

Brad Orsini, the organization’s senior national security advisor, said that in Texas, leaders were taught basic situational awareness: what to look for, what suspicious behavior may look like. They also engaged in active shooter training, countering an active threat training and life-saving training to stop bleeding.

“We really teach that community the necessary tools to stay alive for three to five minutes prior to law enforcement getting there,” Orsini told ABC News. “Law enforcement is not there when an incident happens so we need to know those initial steps to keep ourselves alive.”

The organization said it also provides a 24/7 analyst who is on alert for security threats from across the country.

Security and safety training are beginning to become a part of daily life as Jewish leaders, Fingerhut said. He said they’re doing what it takes to protect the community’s ability to practice their faith rightfully and freely.

“The basis of our religion is the community,” Fingerhut said. “If people are afraid to take their kids to a JCC or to summer camp or afraid to go to synagogue to pray with their community, that would be the ultimate tragedy.”

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