How to Improve Synagogue Safety Policies and Security Procedures

By Bernhard Mehl
December 18, 2018
Synagogue Security

Eleven people were tragically killed on Saturday in Pittsburgh, when a gunman attacked the Tree of Life Synagogue in an apparent hate crime. Reports indicate that the synagogue had created a security plan and practiced active-shooter drills, yet Tree of Life had its doors open during Saturday’s Shabbat service. This is extremely common for religious facilities, because congregations want everyone to feel welcome.

It’s illogical to provision physical keys or to keep the doors locked at all times for most faith-based organizations. People don’t expect to feel unsafe or to have their security compromised during prayer services but, unfortunately, places of worship have become targets in our increasingly polarized world.

We’re also approaching the one-year anniversary of the deadly shooting at a rural church in Sutherland Springs, Texas that left 26 dead and 20 injured. Tragedies like these must be considered, in order to give your religious community the safest experience possible and to foster meaningful connections between them and your space.

Many synagogues and faith-based facilities choose Kisi as their access control system and, in consulting with them over the past six years, we want to share what we’ve learned about the specific access and security issues that synagogues should consider.

Key Issues Affecting Synagogue Security ‍

Many synagogues are open 24/7, providing all-day access hours to certain facilities. In addition, they welcome large groups of people at the same time—this can trigger crowd-related security issues; therefore, synagogues must plan, create and implement strict security policies and procedures. There are specific security elements to keep in mind for synagogue safety:

  • The entrance and exit points are typically left unlocked during a service to accommodate latecomers.
  • Synagogues and related facilities sponsor after-school programs, daycare, as well as religious education classes on weeknights. Schools and other community-oriented organizations often rent the buildings or classrooms, this means that many different schedules and entities are operating at once and they all require different access needs.
  • The community aspect of synagogues, and places of worship, imply inclusivity and a welcoming environment—not a facility with high security or a complex lock-out process; however, many synagogues (including Tree of Life Synagogue) already implement police security for large events and active shooter training programs for staff.
  • Volunteers looking to contribute to the community need to access the buildings to prepare for events, ceremonies, etc., which is not always at a time when a full-time facility manager can be present.
  • Many synagogues don’t have the budget to consider extra security measures, but access control systems shouldn’t break your bank and can help your space save money in the long run.
  • Suburban, faith-based, organizations may find it more difficult to securely promote their mission of accessibility than city-based synagogues—those tend to employ stricter security standards as a result of higher traffic entering their facilities.

Here are some safety precautions that temples and synagogues can take:

Develop a synagogue security plan

Security plans should be a part of the security policy and should help people behave safely when an issue arises; however, a plan is just the backbone of synagogue security and it misses many practical (physical) elements.

Install video surveillance

CCTV systems are a convenient monitoring option because they enable staff to oversee all areas from one room and respond instantly by giving a command via the central dashboard (if applicable). They work hand in hand with your access control system and alarms to visually monitor the access logs you receive from a cloud-based system, like Kisi.

Create a security policy

Create security policies for fires and less expected incidences, violent entries, domestic disturbances, attacks and shootings these must be given special attention. Failure to do so may result in greater damage and harm to people and property.  

Create access role policies‍

Structure anyone who enters your facilities by access level; for example, IT and executive staff should be able to access all doors 24/7, staff should be able to access during business hours (except sensitive doors), and volunteers should be able to access only the main doors during business hours.

Design a plan to cooperate with local law enforcement

Ask them to join large-scale gatherings and enforce an Incident Response Plan (IRP), so that they can help you tackle serious incidents.

Train synagogue leaders about security

In a special educational section of your security policy, explain the role of each leader and hold them accountable.

‍Apply for a security site visit‍

Many faith-based organizations require a security site visit, in order to gain funding or grants from organizations. For example, the Tree of Life synagogue applied for a Department of Homeland Security grant, the New York Post reported. Other nonprofits can apply for similar preventative measures to understand weak points of their space. Access logs from a cloud-based access control system can also supply admins with a clear picture of how entry points are being accessed and how space is utilized.  

Separate public and private WiFi use

This will help the administration have control over who can share sensitive information over the public network and restrict the security system to private WiFi networks.

‍Active shooter training programs‍

Many religious organizations opt to practice active shooter scenarios, similar to methods practiced at schools nationwide. For example, Church Mutual, and many other organizations like the Department of Homeland Security, provide a webinar series and free online resources for leaders to prepare themselves for emergencies.

Assign patrolling staff

It’s vital to include staff in your security procedure, because they have authority and influence due to the role they play in the community, and they can motivate people to cooperate in sensitive security situations.

Material and resources must be locked away when not in use

Survey your access control system by conducting audits to physical locations that are frequented often; occasionally review the security policies to make sure they can account for high-traffic areas. Funding and member donations should be kept in a safe area, only accessible to authorized personnel.


‍Cloud-Based Access Control Systems for Synagogues‍

A vulnerable place is an open invitation for an incident. More faith-based institutions are facing the reality of security, instead of relying upon the goodwill of society, and have begun implementing contemporary access control solutions.

Cloud-based access control is an advantageous solution for synagogue security. It tackles many of the security challenges that they face, as mentioned above, with one solution. Security staff or community leaders can manage all aspects of access control, through their private WiFi network, on the premises or from anywhere in the world through their access control system’s digital dashboard. Small congregations don’t need to hire security staff or pay additional money for a front door worker, depending on the amount of members, and community leaders don’t need to spend time duplicating or retrieving keys.‍

One person, or many administrators, can control all locks and alarms from a desktop computer or smartphone. Cloud-based solutions consist of electronic components that use sensors to detect danger, and electromagnetic doors and locks to create barriers—there’s no need for construction work or altering architecture and the heritage of doors, either; installation of modern access control solutions are neat and elegant.

The admin can create role-based authorizations for staff and assign each member a role that corresponds to a specific location and task. All data is collected and can easily be used by the synagogue for analytical purposes—to find vulnerable points and improve overall security.

Access logs can also be used to decide how to best utilize the facility for special events like bar mitzvahs and recurring events like shabbat dinners.

More and more organizations rely on the use of cloud-based community software to track attendance and sync calendars, as well as manage donations, such as Chaverware, Congregation Connect, and ShulCloud. The ability of security systems to integrate with community softwares will ensure that everyone in the space has been correctly authorized, on the security side, automatically.

When weighing access control options it’s nice to have a visual element of security, such as a reader on the door, since it can deter thieves; however, temples that prioritize the aesthetic of their entrances can also opt to place proximity readers behind the walls.

Find a cloud-based access control company that will listen to your individual needs, and one that understands the limited budgets of non-profits, to find the best solution for your space.

Times are changing for places of worship but advances in technology can keep them safe and optimize the potential the community has to safely benefit from their facilities and services. Considering the hidden threats, while keeping the space accessible to everyone who should be permitted access, will be a key factor affecting your synagogue’s safety strategy.

For more insights on synagogue security, read An Expert Shares 11 Security Tips for Synagogues After Pittsburgh

Bernhard Mehl

Bernhard is the co-founder and CEO of Kisi. His philosophy, "security is awesome," is contagious among tech-enabled companies.