Last weekend, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker invited in a stranger who knocked at the door of his synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, in Texas. He made him some tea. He told him he could stay for the rest of the service, or just until he got warm. Then the man pulled a gun—and held him and other congregants hostage for the next 11 hours.
It’s a become an alarmingly familiar scenario: A man goes into a house of worship with a gun. What the gunman couldn’t know is that Cytron-Walker and others at the synagogue were prepared for a moment just like this. A few months earlier, the rabbi and several members of his congregation took courses from the Secure Community Network, a non-profit security firm that services the North American Jewish diaspora. They trained directly with Stuart Frisch, the group’s regional security director, who says the rabbi did exactly what he should have done. I called Frisch this week to understand more about this niche in the security world and what it involves. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
How did you get into this world?
I’m going to be a little vague on my background for my own personal security, if that’s OK. After high school here in the states, I spent a good deal of time in Israel working in the special operations community in the military. And then post-9/11, I came back to the states and spent just shy of 15 years in the Memphis Police Department, where I commanded our counterterrorism unit here. I’ve got about 30 years of experience in the security world, give or take.
And how did you end up getting into the business of teaching American Jews to prepare for attackers?
Secure Community Network, which is founded in 2004, has a very simple, elegant, and direct mission, which is to provide safety, security, and resiliency to the Jewish communities in North America. We are a sole source and sole customer business. We’re a 501c3, which means we’re a nonprofit, but we have one customer, and one customer only, and that is the Jewish community of North America. It wasn’t that we were choosing one community over another. This organization was founded to do exactly what we’re doing today. What we’re doing in the Jewish community is a sea change from what was done in decades past. The way we’re training our Jewish communities is not the way Jewish communities were always trained.
What are the specifics of your service? Do you walk through scenarios? What does the training look like?
I’m not going to be able to go into specifics on the training. If I give away too many details then the training becomes less effective with every word. In a general sense, I can tell you that we offer a full spectrum of security training to our Jewish communities, whether that is situational awareness training or countering active threat training.
Can you explain what that means a little more?
I’ll do the best I can. The countering-threat training became especially popular in the wake of what happened at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pennsylvania, and six months later the Chabad of Poway in California, and then certainly over to last Saturday in Texas. For countering active threats, the threat we’re looking at is not singular to firearms. As we’ve seen tragically in the United States, there are vehicle rammings, there are edge weapon attacks, there are attacks with firearms, as well as improvised explosive devices like we saw at the Boston Marathon bombing. The vehicle that we use to teach our communities is the run, hide, fight model. You’ll find it in a lot of different training institutes, but when we’re training, we really focus as much as possible on mitigation rather than response using the theory that, I’m not sure how the phrase goes, but a pound of prevention is better than 10 pounds of cure.
Prevention and mitigation is absolutely the preferred method rather than response. When we’re talking about response, we’re talking about run, hide, fight. We’re talking about stop the bleed. That means an incident’s occurred, that something happened that shouldn’t have happened. Somebody’s hurt, somebody’s life has potentially been lost. The value in our training is not only in teaching response and resilience, but mitigation, and specific techniques on how to keep this threat outside of our community and outside of our buildings.
Do you think it’s necessary now for all Jewish communities to learn this?
The further we go on the timeline past an event, the more we tend to think that it was a one-off, the more we tend to think that, that will never happen again, or never happen here, or never happen in a small town. And I think that our training helps provide a little bit of a reality check to our communities that not only are the largest Jewish communities that are targeted, but there is no assumption that the last incident will be the only incident. And I think that helps to provide that constant state of vigilance. Certainly not hypervigilance and paralysis—we don’t want our children to go out of their home in fear; we want them to be proud of their religious identity. And I think that our training efforts goes a long way towards that.
What can you tell me about meeting Rabbi Cytron-Walker? Can you tell me about what that session was like?
He was very open, and he was very happy to have us there. We depend on our faith leaders. When we leave, they have to stand on their pulpit and they have to say, this is the right way to do it. He put his life on the line to save human life, which in Judaism is the highest commandment. And the Hebrew word for that is Pikuach Nefesh, and it doesn’t matter how you keep kosher, or don’t keep kosher, or how you keep the Sabbath, or don’t keep the Sabbath—the commandment to protect and save human life at all costs is the highest commandment. And it’s one thing to stand on a pulpit on a warm Saturday morning and talk about it when your life is not on the line. It’s a completely different proposition to live those words and to risk your life for your fellow congregants with that commandment. And that’s exactly what that rabbi did.
When I read that Rabbi Cytron-Walker threw a chair at the hostage taker and escaped—was that part of his training?
I can tell you how I would evaluate it. it’s not a secret that when you’re telling your children, if a person comes into your classroom with a gun, you do whatever you have to do to survive. If you have to throw a chair at them, you throw a chair at them. If that means you have to throw a cup of hot coffee in their face, then that’s what you do. The rabbi stayed alert. He stayed alive. He did whatever he had to do to survive. The point of a lot of our training. If you boil it down to what we’re asking people to do, we’re asking people to make good decisions under the worst stress imaginable. And that’s what this rabbi did.
In the post-9/11 years, my dad tried to teach me to fight by kind of knocking me around and trying to get me adjusted to the shock of what would happen in a fight. Is a strategy like that ever effective?
What you described with your father is called stress inoculation training. And I don’t think that, especially for children, it’s effective. I think that the secret sauce for what you’re asking me, if there is a secret sauce—and I tell this to my daughter, who is a teenager in high school—is that the best method, the best technique to win any fight, any violent confrontation, is to avoid it in the first place. There’s absolutely no shame in turning around and walking or running the other way. And that’s why the method that we use in our countering act of threat training is called run, hide, fight. It’s not fight, hide, run. Sometimes you might not have a chance to run or hide, you might have to fight first, but the first and best option is always to avoid the danger before it becomes dangerous.
Do you think these lessons apply to other faiths under attack?
Absolutely. 100%. These lessons are faith agnostic. The Islamic faith has been targeted for these types of attacks. Most notably in Christchurch, New Zealand, where over 50 people tragically lost their life. The Sikh community was targeted in 2012 in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. The Christian community has been targeted numerous times in these same types of attacks. So I think that professional security training— not karate lessons, not taking people out to a shooting range—but professional security training is appropriate and is needed for people of all faiths. This is not a Jewish problem. This is a problem for the human race. And if you are in a public place you need to know how to recognize danger and get out before that danger becomes dangerous. And we at SCN do a lot of interfaith training and security meetings. Just yesterday I sat down with a Hindu monk for an interfaith security consult in the town that I live in. It is not a Jewish problem. It is an us problem, unfortunately.
What is the most important tip you can give to people worried about a situation like this?
Seek professional, vetted training and security, and avoid theater security training. Don’t learn Krav Maga or Brazilian Jujitsu and think that that’s going save you in an active threat environment. Don’t go to the gun range and think that one hour of training a year is going to save you in an active threat environment. Seek training on the awareness disciplines. Seek training on behavioral and situational awareness. Seek good, active threat mitigation training. And most importantly, trust your instincts. When the hair on the back of your neck is standing up and all the bells in your head are ringing and you know something is wrong, don’t say it’s probably nothing. Listen to your instincts and commit to action on those instincts.