When Jewish Federation of St. Louis hired Scott Biondo as community security director in August 2017, it was on a part-time, interim basis. The St. Louis Jewish community had experienced a year with bomb threats against Jewish institutions and vandalism at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery. (Neither of the perpetrators’ motives turned out to be anti-Semitism.)
More than two years later, Biondo now works full time for the Jewish nonprofit umbrella organization. He has plenty to keep him busy following the recent attacks at Jewish communal spaces in Pennsylvania, California, New Jersey, and New York.
“It’s a continuous process, and we are always looking for what we can do to bolster security in the community,” said Biondo.
That has amounted to Federation allocating $350,000 in December 2019 to enhance building security at local Jewish facilities, according to the organization. It was the largest grant the nonprofit made during that funding cycle.
The local organization, like other Federation chapters around the United States, is placing an increased emphasis on security because of growing concerns about the threat of attacks.
When Federation hired Biondo, he was one of about 25 such Jewish community security directors, according to the organization; now there are about 40.
The $350,000 investment is “a major commitment, but it’s also a realization that this is a necessary part of our role in protecting the community,” said Don Hannon, Federation’s chief operating officer.
In June, Biondo, a longtime security consultant, started doing “vulnerability assessments” at local Jewish institutions.
“We took a look at a broad sweep of things across the board and recognized that there is a disparity in the community in terms of security,” Biondo said.
Improvements include strengthening or adding physical barriers outside buildings and upgrading audio-visual equipment at entrances.
“Everything we do in terms of our response to threats is to delay the ability of the [attacker] to get to victims until first responders arrive,” Biondo said.
The focus on security is not only connected to infrastructure but also in training for people at Jewish institutions. (For example, in the event of an attack, people should first try to run; if they are unable to escape, hide, and as a last resort, fight.) And more Jewish organizations are hiring police officers to protect the buildings.
In January, Anita Feigenbaum, executive director of the Chesed Shel Emeth Society — where vandalism has taken place — alerted funeral homes that until further notice, the cemetery would be hiring police officers for all funerals.
The move came after two assailants entered a kosher grocery store in Jersey City, N.J. in December, and shot and killed three civilians. Later that month, on the seventh night of Hanukkah, an assailant entered the home of a Hasidic rabbi in Monsey, N.Y. and stabbed five people with a large knife.
The cost of police at the cemetery has been passed along to the people paying for funerals. Other local institutions have applied and received security grants from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security or done fundraising where a donor paid for security for one Shabbat, according to Biondo.
The cost is “something I think the whole community understands,” Feigenbaum said. “We have to be very diligent. We have to be very observant. We have to be on our A-game all the time. We have to make sure that we follow our protocol, even during funerals.”
Biondo and Hannon said they expect that the current investment in security will just be the first in a number of phases to enhance security in the St. Louis Jewish community.
“I imagine this is going to be an ongoing thing because we are continuously monitoring (security issues) and the threat landscape changes. You see different kinds of players out there, so we have to be aware of that,” Biondo said.
But will the synagogues in St. Louis and the rest of the United States eventually become like those in Europe with metal detectors, bulletproof fences and pat downs for entrants?
“I really hope not,” Biondo said. “I would like to see society change so we’re not headed in that direction. But here’s the reality: a synergy has to exist. Synagogues are houses of worship, which means people come there to express their faith. They have to be able to do so in a way that they are not in fear the entire time they are there. So much of what we do is to enhance their ability to worship.”
Despite the uncertainty, Biondo and others in security at Federation have received positive feedback from community members. A security vehicle now patrols the Millstone Campus near Creve Coeur, and Biondo said residents who live in the senior housing there have told him, “what a joy to be able to go out and walk at night and know that there is that patrol out there, that there is someone else out there with us.”