Canadian orgs’ security already high before attack, experts say

Adam Cohen

Events in the Middle East, particularly when they’re as bloody as the attack on worshippers in a Jerusalem synagogue Nov. 18, almost always lead to fallout in Canada, at least on the security front.

But with security already at heightened levels following Operation Protective Edge in the summer and in the aftermath of the Parliament Hill attack in October, there is not much more community institutions can do to prepare themselves.

So said Adam Cohen, director of security for Federation CJA in Montreal and for the past eight months, national director of community security for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA). In the latter capacity, Cohen has taken on CIJA’s national security file, assisting federations across the country as well as other community organizations increase their preparedness.

Most community institutions, synagogues and schools, have already implemented security protocols that have been recommended to them, Cohen said.

But given the gruesome nature of the events in Jerusalem, there was one development this week that was unexpectedly positive, he said.

Unbidden, police across the country called with their condolences and told Cohen as well as local community representatives that they were stepping up their patrols around synagogues and schools.

Police in Calgary, Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Winnipeg have stepped up their presence in and around Jewish institutions, he said. (A spokesperson for the Toronto Police Service declined to comment on steps taken to increase security.)

There is no intelligence warning of a specific attack, Cohen pointed out. “It’s all precautionary.”

The presence of marked squad cars can deter someone planning a copycat attack from collecting information about Jewish institutions. It also serves to reassure members of the Jewish community that police take seriously their security concerns, Cohen said.

Jewish communities around the world stepped up their vigilance in the aftermath of the Jerusalem synagogue attack that left five people dead. In an attack in Antwerp, Belgium, before the Jerusalem incident, a man was stabbed on his way to synagogue.

In Britain, the British Community Security Trust, an agency of the Jewish community, issued a security bulletin to Jewish institutions containing nine instructions, including a call to “ensure visible external security patrols take place to deter and detect hostile activity” and immediate reporting to police of any suspicious behaviour, the Jerusalem Post reported.

In New York, police beefed up security at synagogues and other Jewish locations. The measures were described as precautionary and not in response to any known threat.

Rabbi Reuben Poupko, spiritual leader of the Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation and chair of the Jewish community’s security co-ordinating committee in Montreal, said “the intensity of security at Jewish institutions ebbs and flows depending on events in Israel” and around the world. His congregation had been in a state of “heightened vigilance” before events in Jerusalem.

“This is not our first dance,” he said. “We’ve been through this before. Everybody knows to be more careful.”

Rabbi Poupko pointed to security measures implemented at the synagogue to make it a more difficult target, as well as increased alertness being asked of community members. He also lauded Montreal police for stepping up their patrols and for investigating and prosecuting previous attacks on community institutions when they occur.

“In Montreal, we’ve benefited enormously from our relationship with police,” he said.

Compared to Jewish institutions in Europe, which are often protected with armed guards, measures in Montreal are relatively “low intensity,” he added.

“Our synagogues are open in a way that would shock anyone familiar with the European system,” he said.

Cohen believes Canadian institutions have implemented adequate security measures. Doing more would be like putting on a second seatbelt.

“Right after the conflict in Israel this summer, we visited more than 100 centres in the country and gave them guidelines, corrections, where to put more emphasis, or less.”

Cohen is pleased with the response and level of preparedness. While more can always be done, additional measures could cost more than the institutions can afford, he said.

Security guards may be helpful, but when the money for them runs out, there is little to show for it. Better to put your money into long-term solutions that make the facility more difficult for an attacker to penetrate, he said.

Though he declined to provide detailed information what those measures could be, he said steps that could be taken include improved lighting and installing a controlled entry system to buildings.

Perhaps most important, Cohen continued, is training staff so they know how to respond to incidents such as threatening phone calls, identifying problematic visitors and refusing them entry, how to react to an emergency situations, and even scanning mail to look for anomalies.

“There’s always the fear of a random copycat,” Cohen said. “But that also applies to school shootings. It’s a reality.”

Members of the community should “trust the authorities, the people who work in these institutions, but always pay attention to what’s happening in those institutions, just like you do when you cross the street.”