The Philadelphia Jewish community has launched a new initiative to practice emergency preparedness within and among our Jewish institutions. Jewish Federation, synagogues, JCCs, schools, senior centers, and more are engaging in these groundbreaking efforts of creating safety plans before a crisis occurs, rather than when an emergency crisis hits. Timing is essential when reacting to emergencies. Preparedness leads to clearer thinking, crisis management and having resources available very quickly.
The premise for emergency planning is that we cannot stop all bad things from happening, but we can take concrete steps to plan, prepare, and minimize the damage. The Jewish Emergency Preparedness Project (JEPP), led by Interim Director Yoni Ari, is designed to unite Jewish communities and build resilience in order to effectively respond in emergency situations such as terror or antisemitic attacks, riots, and all varieties of natural disasters.
Vitaly Rakhman, one of JEPP’s founders, stated in the recent JEPP workshop on building community resilience, that we engage in this work because preparedness is about looking out for one another. His great grandparents were murdered at Babi Yar and he is committed to never seeing such slaughter of Jews again. “Some of our loved ones were saved in the Shoah due to someone else looking out for them. Jewish law commands us to save a life when possible, or pikuach nefesh. Valuing human life is integral to Jewish thinking.” Sherrie Savett, JEPP’s other founder, stated that “a basic tenet of Jewish life is the concept of being responsible for one another, Kol Yisroel Arevim Zeh la Zeh. It is our sacred duty to protect and defend our fellow Jews.”
Federation Chief Executive Director Michael Balaban and JEPP President Sherrie Savett graciously shared their visions for Philadelphia. Balaban is also a fire fighter. “My instinct is to go in and help people so I tend to go in for other disasters too.” In 2018, Balaban served as Director of a Jewish Federation in Florida. When the Parkland school shootings occurred, he triaged resources and acted fast to secure 40 social workers and Israeli trauma teams for students and staff. “Life lessons teach us more than one could imagine”, says Balaban. Savett expresses that we cannot rely solely on public authorities. She sees this as an incredible opportunity to build community. “Through preparation and training, we will unite our people and give them confidence when crises occur. By drawing on the strengths of many and by advance trainings to create muscle memory to those trained, there will be less panic and more solid thinking in emergencies.” She adds that Philadelphia may poised to be a model of emergency preparedness for cities across the U.S.
We all agree that we want a safe Jewish community. The questions are: How do we define ‘safe’? How do we plan for it? How do we address risk factors? Who discusses these issues? A conference, organized by JEPP, took place during the weekend of Nov 18-21 at the Main Line Reform Temple. Twenty-five Jewish organizations (schools, JCC, synagogues, and welfare organizations) participated representing all threads in the community. During the 12 hour seminar, we learned together with expert trainers who came from Israel, Professor Mooli Lahad Ph.D., a senior medical psychologist and drama therapist, author of 35 books, and Dr. Ruvi Rogel, CEO of the Community Stress Prevention Center in Israel. Israeli experts Mooli and Ruvi have led post-disaster recovery expeditions in Sri Lanka, Uganda, Mumbai, Pittsburgh, Houston, and more.
In small groups, the group discussed decision-making and analysis in scenarios such as severe weather storms, overt anti-semitism, missing persons, active shooters, immigrant needs, and a riot at a public event. We discussed the cognitive dissonance which occurs in emergencies and how advance planning helps individuals, families, communities, and larger societies to cope. The process, as can be seen in the photos, showed how engaged each of the workshop attendees was in group problem solving and planning the community’s responses.
Local government official Todd Stieritz of Montgomery County’s Department of Public Safety applauds public safety efforts like this conference. Montgomery County has approximately 850,000 residents, receives about 800,000 calls per year, trains EMTs, police, fire and paramedics. It cannot respond instantly to many threats and thus community first responders are very important to handle immediate needs, as well as the human after-effects of crises, such as the need for shelter, food, clothing, and trauma help. JEPP’s essence is to teach communities to provide for those human needs in a crisis and its aftermath.
To avoid reinventing the wheel, JEPP is reaching out to various agencies. The Chesed Fund of Baltimore developed detailed literature on synagogue security measures. The Community Security Service represents America’s largest Jewish volunteer security organization where since 2007 professionals and military have trained 4500 volunteers to protect synagogues, schools, community centers, to recognize unfamiliar faces, and prevent situations from escalating.
The Jewish Federation system nationally and locally and the Nonprofit Security Grant Program is offering grant funds for Jewish nonprofits to conduct training and assist with security. 15% of certain allowable grants may be used for training, as opposed to cameras and other hard physical items of protection. JEPP, in conjunction with our Philadelphia Federation, is developing training programs to prepare our institutions for the inevitable emergencies which will occur.