Congregations prepare for High Holidays security
Staying safeTaking appropriate measures

Congregations prepare for High Holidays security

Federation staffer, executive directors and community members share strategies.

Bradley Orsini, Federation's director of Jewish Community Security, has assisted numerous congregations in recent months. (File photo)
Bradley Orsini, Federation's director of Jewish Community Security, has assisted numerous congregations in recent months. (File photo)

High holidays are around the corner and congregations are preparing for potentially new faces and increased numbers of attendees. In an effort to address security needs, congregations throughout the area have taken steps to create optimal, safe and comfortable environments for congregants to gather and pray.

“Since Oct. 27, Beth El has totally revamped how we approach the safety and security of our congregants and guests. The High Holidays offer a number of different logistical challenges just based on the sheer amount of people throughout our facility. But, we have taken numerous steps to educate through trainings and help ensure less response time between us and emergency responders,” said Steve Hecht, executive director of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills.

Maintaining good rapport with first responders is critical, explained Leslie Hoffman, executive director of Temple Emanuel of South Hills.

“We’re very fortunate to have such a longstanding partnership with Mt. Lebanon police,” said Hoffman. “They have always been our partners and will continue again this year.”

Apart from working closely with police, Hoffman regularly consults Brad Orsini, Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s director of security, she added.

Temple Emanuel is one of many congregations and organizations Federation has worked with on security matters, explained Orsini.

“We are working with all our congregations that are requesting help,” he said.

Each group has different needs, but the commonality is developing “good security plans,” continued Orsini.

Recommendations range from placing armed personnel outside of buildings to ensuring bolstered doors throughout each venue’s premises.

Temple Sinai is adopting various tactics to increase its security and “make sure people feel comfortable when attending services” this High Holiday season, said Drew Barkley, Temple Sinai’s executive director. “We want people to have the same sense of connection and comfort that they’ve had in prior years, so we are upping the security in a way that won’t scare people but make them feel more comfortable.”

In an effort to familiarize attendees, Barkley lined out several strategies in an August newsletter. Security measures mentioned include welcoming uniformed and plain clothes security, increasing training for greeters and staff prior to the holidays and requiring attendees to bring admission tickets to each service.

“We have no pushback from our congregants with what we’re trying to do,” said Barkley. “People understand.”

Achieving a particular environment that is both absolutely secure and completely welcoming is a balance, explained Kohenet Keshira HaLev Fife, of Kesher Pittsburgh.

“It’s not an easy choice for us just to beef up security because we are aware that while conventional wisdom is that having armed guards and visible security is safer, or at least feels safer, that may be an incorrect assumption,” said Fife. “For people of color and marginalized people, seeing an armed guard, particularly if the guard is white and male, is not equated with making people feel safer. It can make people feel less safe, so what we are doing for Rosh Hashanah is having an armed guard. We are taking the good advice of people who are urging us to err on the side of caution, and we are requesting that the armed guard be either female or a person of color or both.”

Challenges will always exist on the High Holidays, but people should follow prior protocols, said Orsini.

“As we always say in our community, ‘Be aware, be vigilant and report everything,’” said the Federation staffer. “That’s how we build this holistic security program to help keep our congregations safe.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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