Police at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, the day after the hostage event
Police at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, the day after the hostage eventAndy Jacobsohn/AFP via Getty Images

When Haya Varon relocated to Houston from Mexico City more than four decades ago, she felt like she was moving to a safer place. As the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who had lost most of his family to Nazi genocide, Varon was especially sensitive to threats of violence and antisemitism.

But these days Varon finds herself looking over her shoulder in Houston. She feels shaken not just by the armed hostage standoff last January at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, and the deadly 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, but also by antisemitism at home in Houston.

Throughout the last year, Houstonians have found racist and antisemitic flyers on their driveways, and hate speech online directed at Jews has been growing exponentially.

“I think about the threat to Jewish institutions a lot,” said Varon, who serves on the boards of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, the Holocaust Museum Houston, and a local Jewish day school.

As the threat level has risen, the federation has been behind a broad effort to beef up security at Jewish community institutions across metropolitan Houston. The idea is both to provide local Jews with some peace of mind amid growing anxiety about hate speech and attacks and to provide hard facts on the ground to counter the heightened risks to Jews.

“I feel a sense of sadness that we have to do this,” Varon said. “But I also feel very proud of being part of a community that takes care of every one of its members.”

Renée Wizig-Barrios, president and CEO of Houston Federation, said, “Colleyville certainly was a turning point in community consciousness, but quite honestly there has been a rise in antisemitic incidents here for a long time.”

The muscular effort to secure the Jewish community in Houston is part and parcel of a transformation taking place nationwide that is backed by the Jewish Federations of North America, which over a decade ago created the Jewish community’s main security organization, the Secure Community Network (SCN), and has been at the forefront of lobbying government — successfully — for significant increases for security funding for the U.S. Jewish community.

This year, the Jewish Federations, which represent over 300 Jewish communities around North America, established a new program called LiveSecure to enable federations across the continent to invest in the training, tools, and resources to protect synagogues, schools, senior centers, and summer camps, among other Jewish institutions. The Jewish Federations umbrella organization is providing $62 million for the program, and federations around the country will raise $68 million in matching funds to bring the total to $130 million.

The Houston Federation is among the first Federations nationwide to receive grant funding through the new program. Other communities have concerns about rising antisemitism, too.

More than 2,700 antisemitic incidents were recorded in the United States in 2021, a 34% increase over the previous year, according to the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) annual audit. That marks the highest number since the organization started tracking such incidents in 1979.

“One of the primary goals of Jewish Federations is to ensure that we can have flourishing Jewish communities,” said Julie Platt, chair of the Jewish Federations board. “And if you’re afraid to walk into an institution or into an organization because you’re fearful of your own security, we don’t have a chance.”

LiveSecure represents just the latest iteration of the Jewish Federations’ investment in security. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Jewish Federations in conjunction with the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations launched the Secure Community Network, which conducts intelligence and information sharing, facility assessments, trainings and coordination with law enforcement.

Jewish Federations’ advocacy and public policy departments lobbied in Washington, D.C., to establish the Nonprofit Security Grant Program and for more than a decade have been advocating for increased funding for faith-based organizations around the country. Most recently, both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees proposed $360 million for such grants.

After the 2018 Tree of Life shooting, which killed 11 victims in what constituted the deadliest-ever antisemitic attack in U.S. history, federations around the country started to invest more time and money in improving their security, said Debra Grant, associate vice president of LiveSecure for Jewish Federations.

“Most of the large and the large intermediate federations have created sophisticated community security initiatives,” Grant said. “The intermediate and small federations have been focused on security but many didn’t necessarily have the resources to really address the issues in a strategic way.”

That’s where the collective power of the Jewish Federations — which often play a behind-the-scenes role supporting Jewish programs of all kinds, from local Jewish social welfare agencies to Birthright Israel and resettlement programs in Poland for Ukrainian war refugees — came in.

Jewish Federations reached out to individual donors and foundations to raise money to provide additional security for Jewish communities across North America. The result: 38 families provided $62 million, which the Jewish Federations will allocate for security needs over the next three years.

In partnership with SCN, communities will use the funds to enhance their security protocols, and in some cases launch entirely new security programs, working together to create a shield of security across Jewish communities throughout North America.

Among the recommendations of the Secure Community Network, Jewish facilities are urged to secure their properties, install alarm systems, have medical supplies on hand, install access control systems, train staff and members on how to respond to active threat scenarios, install nighttime lighting and make sure to coordinate closely with law enforcement and first responders.

As central coordinating bodies, federations take a holistic approach to security across a community’s Jewish institutions.

“We are working with federations to assess what their programs look like right now,” Grant said. “Are they being led by a former law enforcement professional security director? Do they have a strategic plan for how they want to grow their program? Are they offering trainings and assessments for every organization and group in the Jewish community? And are they actively reporting antisemitic incidents to local law enforcement and to the SCN Duty Desk?”

When Wizig-Barrios joined the Houston Federation in September 2021, the organization’s board had decided to launch a community security initiative but hadn’t yet raised sufficient funding to implement it.

This spring, the organization launched its security program with funding from LiveSecure, which will provide up to $100,000 annually for three years if the Federation matches with $200,000 each year. In June, the Houston group hired a community security director, Alfred Tribble Jr., a 27-year veteran of the FBI, who has started conducting security assessments at schools, institutions, and synagogues and scheduled security trainings for Jewish community leaders.

Such assessments are important not only for security reasons, but also to comply with guidelines that nonprofits must follow in order to apply for the federal and state grants, Grant said. In November 2021, about 42 Jewish federations had security directors who conducted security assessments. The goal is to have community security directors who are responsible for all 146 federations and 300 network communities.

“That was really the first point of LiveSecure,” Grant said. “We need to get dollars into the communities to help them to be able to afford to do these assessments, to know their buildings, to understand what kinds of hardening needs to happen.”

For example, a building with four entrances might restrict all comings and goings to just one, locking all the others and installing cameras. A security guard could be hired for when the building is in use. All facilities should have first aid kits that include tourniquets and compression bandages so bystanders can stop the bleeding of a wounded person in the event of a shooting, which can buy precious minutes that could save a life.

LiveSecure is not just for cities like Houston that did not previously have a community security director. The Jewish Federation of Cleveland has had a dedicated security program for almost a decade but plans to apply for LiveSecure funding to support a slew of needed enhancements.

The Cleveland Federation recently launched a community monitoring system connected to an emergency communications center. The system features 700 security cameras and 26 automated license plate readers. The funding would help the organization hire personnel to monitor the system and provide security for community members, said the federation’s vice president of external relations, Oren Baratz, who oversees local security.

The goal, said Baratz, who also serves as a senior adviser to LiveSecure, is to provide security guidance to Jewish communities around North America because most don’t have a security professional guiding their activity.

Grant says she hopes LiveSecure will produce a multi-pronged, coordinated approach to security across the Jewish Federations network. That would include regular active shooter and situational awareness trainings, and assessments to ensure institutions have appropriate locks, video cameras, bollards and bulletproof glass.

“We are stressing to all of our Federations the importance of constantly doing trainings over and over,” Grant said. “We know that there is a muscle memory that you only build if you go through and understand all of these different elements of trainings.”

LiveSecure is meant to operate for three years, but it could be extended to enable communities to fully implement the necessary security upgrades and programs.

“We want to make sure that we are doing this right, and that the dollars are making a real impact,” Grant said. “I really believe it’s going to strengthen our Jewish communities for many, many, many years.”

A security camera hangs across the street from the Park East Synagogue, in New York City.
A security camera hangs across the street from the Park East Synagogue, in New York City.Drew Angerer/Getty Images

This article was sponsored by and produced in partnership with the Jewish Federations of North America, which represents over 300 Jewish communities and distributes over $2 billion annually to build flourishing Jewish communities around the globe. This story was produced by JTA’s native content team.