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October 10, 2015 | 27th Tishrei 5776

Making Congregants Feel Safe and Secure While Participating in Congregational Life

They shall sit every person under their vine and under their fig tree,
and none shall make them afraid. Micah 4.4

During these challenging times, many congregational leaders are concerned about how to best help congregants feel safe and secure while participating in congregational worship, programs, activities, and events. The following information is taken from a presentation at a RAC-sponsored pre-biennial program entitled After September 11: Pursuing Justice In The New Era, held on December 4, 2001.

When congregational leaders consider how to respond to any real or perceived external threat, it is important to be clear about the motivation for that decision, as well as the desired outcome, and the financial, physical, and emotional impact of that decision. Rather than being driven by fear, media-hype, our societal desire for instant gratification or 'sound-bite solutions', we must remember that our task is to respond rationally to irrational acts, that hysteria does not equal vigilance, and that realistically, what we are best able to provide is a sense of security.

Congregational responses to recent events have varied widely. Clearly no one plan is right for every congregation. What is critical is that congregational leaders make decisions that are informed by rational thinking, and Jewish values; decisions that are prudent, and not reactive, and decisions that do not place an insurmountable financial burden on the congregation, while providing only the illusion of safety and security. The Talmud reminds us that 'an emergency situation does not constitute proof' (Sukkah 31a-b), so we should not allow exceptions for extraordinary circumstances to set precedents for ordinary occasions.

We must heed the advice of governmental officials like former Director of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, who reminded us in a press conference on December 3, 2001 that our best response, even during a period of heightened alert, is to:

  • Rely on good judgment and common sense
  • Report suspicious behavior
  • Continue to live as normally as possible

The following checklist may be helpful to you as you review current security plans and consider any further actions:

  • Set the context for the conversation
    • What are we trying to accomplish?
  • Use appropriate sources and resources
    • What can our texts teach us about how Jews have responded to fear and threats throughout our history?
    • Have we consulted with local law enforcement officials, mental health authorities, and security professionals in our congregation and in our community?
    • Have we looked to create or strengthen partnerships with neighbors, and other community institutions?
  • Separate fears and facts
    • Have we considered carefully the thoughts, feelings and opinions of each congregant?
    • Have we allowed those who are most fearful to be part of the solution?
    • Are we making fact-based, prudent decisions based on the most accurate information available
  • Understand congregational systems, and the systems of your congregation
    • Do we clearly understand how difficult decisions are made in our congregation?
    • Do we know who needs to be involved in the conversation, and in the decision?
    • Are we dealing with symptoms of larger issues, or are we creating vision-based, systemic solutions?
    • Are our responses appropriate for our congregation?
    • Are we ensuring that there is an appropriate and timely process for reviewing our decisions and making changes as needed?
  • Educate, educate, educate!
    • Are we communicating clearly and regularly with congregants?
    • Do congregants understand the rationale for leadership decisions, the ramifications of those decisions, and the process we used to arrive at those decisions?
    • Have we reminded congregants that they are not alone, and created opportunities to remind them they are part of a congregational community?
  • Determine short-term and long-term goals
    • Have we considered what we can do immediately, with minimal expense, and which responses need more planning and will have greater budgetary impact?
  • Don't overlook the obvious
    • Have we reviewed traffic patterns, building entrances and exits, and reception areas?
    • Have we developed or reviewed disaster and emergency preparedness plans?
    • Have we provided appropriate training for staff and congregants?
  • Respond Jewishly
    • Are our decisions consistent with the goals, mission and vision of the congregation?
    • Have we ensured that our decisions do not create prejudice or reinforce negative stereotypes?
    • Do our decisions reflect our congregational values and help to strengthen a well-run, spiritually fulfilling, sacred congregational community?

The whole Torah exists only for the sake of peace. (Gittin 59b)

One who does not sense the sufferings of their people
does not belong to them.(Hagigah 5a)

Keep aloof from what is ugly and whatever resembles it. (Hullin 4b)

Another of Hillel's mottos:

'...The inhibited will not learn, the irate cannot teach...
in a place where there are no human beings, try to be one. (Pirke Avot 2:5)

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