Our Highest Obligation, Pikuach nefesh, Is the Preservation of Human Life

Jan 10, 2023 | Article, Event, Newsletter, Program

Our Highest Obligation, Pikuach nefesh, Is the Preservation of Human Life

Jan 10, 2023

Michael Master - DHS Appointed by Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas – March 2022 The Homeland Security Advisory Council (HSAC) leverages the experience, expertise, and national and global connections of the HSAC membership to provide the Secretary real-time, real-world, and independent advice to support decision-making across the spectrum of homeland security operations.[/caption]Michael Masters is the National Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Secure Community Network (SCN). The SCN is the national homeland security initiative of the North American Jewish community, formed under the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. During his recent visit to Colorado, we spoke with Masters about the work of SCN and current trends in safety and security.

Some people who know about SCN may understand its mission but may not have a clear vision of how that mission relates to their daily lives as they do routine activities. What would you tell them?

Our goal is that when you are doing those routine things—dropping your kids off at day school, going to synagogue, participating in activities at the JCC—you can feel confident that it is safe and secure. At the end of the day, it’s to ensure that Jewish life can not only exist but also grow and flourish. The day that people start questioning whether it is safe to drop their kids off at a JCC or a day school or camp or to walk to synagogue, that’s the day, in my mind, that we have failed as a community and as a people to ensure not just security but peace of mind. We at SCN, working with our partners like JEWISHcolorado, don’t intend to fail.

Can you offer a real-world example of how SCN operates?

I can give you one from today. Our Duty Desk, which comprises a team of intelligence analysts who staff our national Jewish Security Operations Command Center (JSOCC) in Chicago, became aware of an individual who stated they wanted to undertake an attack against a Jewish facility. In this instance, the tip was phoned in by a concerned party. The allegation was that this individual was not only potentially violent but was actually renting a motel room across from the Jewish facility itself.

The Duty Desk started to do their work using our proprietary technology platform known as Project RAIN (Real-time Actionable Intelligence Network). Project RAIN enables us—among other things—to mine the surface web, deep web, and dark web. This all happened within a matter of two hours.

They identified relevant details related to this person and then coordinated with the security director in that community. Working together, they notified state and local law enforcement, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security.

That is the same work our Duty Desk does with JEWISHcolorado’s [Director of Regional Safety & Security] Phil Niedringhaus so that when a threat comes in or a suspicious person or actor shows up at a facility, Phil is coordinating what is happening in Colorado with a team of our intelligence analysts and professionals around the country.

Is an incident like this the exception to the rule or is this a typical day?

We are seeing those types of threats, that type of action, multiple times a week, if not multiple times a day, and we have seen a noticeable increase in these events over the last several years. Our goal is to have an apparatus in place that mitigates and addresses the threats before they turn violent, but most of our work happens very, very quietly.

During this past year, there have been high-profile antisemitic incidents making the news, most notably with the rapper Ye and NBA player Kyrie Irving. This past spring, the Anti-Defamation League reported that antisemitic incidents had reached an all-time high in the United States in 2021.

There is no question that all the data we see—from our partners at ADL, from law enforcement, reports which we take in ourselves at SCN and share with our partners (like ADL)—shows an increase in incidents. One observation I would make about those numbers: we can—and should—seek to understand and address why people hate us, why there is a rise in antisemitism, why hate crime reporting is not reflective of what is actually happening. Those are all important discussions.

But at the same time, let’s make sure we are locking the front door and training. We cannot forget that our highest obligation, Pikuach nefesh, is the preservation of human life. We have an excellent way of doing that which is investing in community security initiatives and resources to protect and prepare the community so that when something does happen, we are as prepared and as resilient as possible.

SCN develops training and assessment tools that are used as part of community security initiatives. Can you offer an example of how that training has proven effective?

January 15 was the one-year anniversary of hostages being taken at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas. When the hostages left the building 11 hours after that event began, one of the first things one of the hostages said was, “We were not rescued. We escaped.”

One of the reasons those hostages were able to maintain their composure and escape is that they had been trained. Just five months prior, one of our team members at SCN had been to Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville and had done that training. It’s the same training that Phil Niedringhaus delivers here in Denver and across the state to Jewish and non-Jewish organizations.

So SCN knows that training can make a difference—in some cases the difference between life and death.

Yes, but it’s not enough to train one synagogue or one day school or one JCC. We cannot choose the time or place of the next incident, but we can choose how we prepare. That preparation should be comprehensive. In Colorado, there are 57 synagogues and Chabad congregations, 24-day schools and child and after-care programs, and multiple JCCs and Hillel organizations. Members of all of those organizations and users of their facilities need to be trained to know what to do. That is the work that Phil is doing, supported by his colleagues at SCN and through the leadership at JEWISHcolorado.

The responsibility of reaching everyone in all communities weighs on us. That’s why our partnership with JEWISHcolorado and other Federations is so meaningful and impactful for us.

People often watch an event like Colleyville, and it feels upsetting but also distant—just another item on the evening news. Do we deceive ourselves when we think this is someone else’s problem?

One of the biggest issues we work to confront is complacency or denial. At every incident our security professionals have ever responded to, people have told us, “I never thought it would happen here.” It can—whether at a synagogue in Pittsburgh or Poway or at a grocery store in Boulder or Buffalo.

How does SCN combat that way of thinking?

Let’s start with publicly reported FBI data. Three years ago, there were about 700 domestic terrorism cases. Two years ago, there were 1,000. The most recent number the FBI has testified to in public is 2,800 open domestic terrorism investigations. So that means that the FBI is opening or dealing with roughly three a day. That is a small indicator of what the threat level looks like.

In the last six months, our Duty Desk has looked at more than 227,000 risk events, of which more than 4,400 were specific to the Jewish community. During that time, we have referred more than 235 individuals or issues to the FBI, alone.

This reality requires us to be prepared, proactive—and empowered.

Every month in 2022, our Duty Desk logged more incidents reported to us than the previous month and more incidents compared to that same month the prior year. Some of that is a result of the community getting better at reporting, which is good.

Another part of the reality is the increased monitoring we are doing through the increase in the number of our analysts, the enhanced capabilities due to Project RAIN, and the increased number of professionally led, full-time security initiatives—either at the local level or regional one.

Finally, though, we have to acknowledge an increased number of incidents.

Also, we know there is underreporting of incidents and hate crimes. We are working with FBI, state, and local agencies to identify ways to ensure the reporting is accurate.

Regardless of the numbers, we know that Jewish communities and organizations are targeted, and we need to prepare. We don’t need a statistic to tell us that.

We have talked a lot about your work in the Jewish community, but it’s important to note that SCN is working in the larger community.

One of the reasons we are recognized for best practices by the Department of Homeland Security, one of the reasons we sit on the Secretary of Homeland Security’s Faith-Based Security Advisory Council is because we have developed tools and solutions that we share with the multi-faith community. We share with others, no matter their race, religion, or creed, and that includes the African American community, the Muslim community, the Latino community, the Sikh community.

You work in a very serious business. What gives you hope for the future?

When you walk into any early education center in our community, go into a classroom or visit a Jewish camp, and you look at the children, their energy should remind us why we do this work. Children are what give us hope for our future, and it is our responsibility that future generations should be able to live Jewish lives without fear.