He used to preach tolerance to beat anti-Semitism. Now he’s training Jews to fight back – NorthJersey.com

Posted By on July 23, 2020

The Kosher market targeted in the violent Tuesday attack in Jersey City is boarded up and covered in tributes to the victims on Friday, Dec. 13, 2020. NorthJersey.com

In his old job, Evan Bernstein spenthis workdays cataloging anti-Semitic attacks andspeakingoutagainst bigotry around the globe.

But now, the former leader of the Anti-Defamation League in New York and New Jerseywants to do more than condemnhateful acts: He's taking action against them, and encouraging others to join the front lines.

In May, the 45-year-old Connecticut native left the storied civil rights group to become the new CEO of Community Security Service, a New York-based nonprofit that has trained thousands of volunteers to protect synagogues and other Jewish institutions around the U.S.

The switch suggests the stark reality facing Jews in America, where anti-Semitic acts reached record highs last year, including deadly assaults from California to Jersey City and Rockland County.

Evan Bernstein is the new CEO of Community Security Services, an organization training volunteers to protect Jewish institutions and Jewish events. Bernstein is pictured in the The Garden of Remembrance in White Plains, created to honor the memories of the millions of men, women and children destroyed in the Holocaust. The sculptor Rita Rapaport created the "Gates of Remembrance," to memorialize the suffering and death of millions during the Nazi era from 1933 to 1945.(Photo: AMY NEWMAN, NORTHJERSEY.COM/ USA TODAY NETWORK)

"We need volunteers who are invested in protecting their own institutionsand not relying on private security," Bernstein said in an interview. "Its as much about empowerment as physical security, and notrelying on others."

The son of two secular Jewish parents, Bernstein grew up to attend an Orthodox temple where security is now always front of mind, he said. At CSS, he leads an organization with a $1 million budget that has trained almost 5,000 volunteers who operate at 100 synagogues nationwide.

The teams patrol houses of worship, assess risks, drill for active shooters and aid congregations that have come under attack. In the age of COVID-19, they've also provided Jewish communities with health protocols for navigating the pandemic.

Private security forces are likely to become ever more important for American Jews as police departments face growing distrust and the budgetary hit of the coronavirus recession, former NYPD Commissioner RayKelly told an interviewer in The Jerusalem Post last week.

We are in a dangerous place in history, he said.

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CSS trains volunteers about perimeter and access control, situational awareness, emergency management, self-defense and the best practices for mitigating threats, a spokesman said.

The group doesnot discuss tactical operations, includingthe use of weapons. But Bernstein said he's notopposed to members being armed, as long as they get the appropriate training and approach the issue with care:If you just say, willy-nilly, you can have a gun, thats not protecting the community well," he said.

In New Jersey, home to one of the country's largest Jewish populations, some 1,800 CSS-trained volunteers serve at more than two dozen sites, said Deena Seelenfreund, the group's regional manager.

"We've gotten a lot of calls recently from synagogues and volunteers thathave expressed interest in coming aboard becauseof increased anti-Semitic activity," she said, adding that Bernstein's contacts and fundraising abilityshould help the service grow.

Nationwide, the ADL recorded more than 2,100anti-Jewish attacks last year, the highest number in the 40 years the watchdog group has tracked such incidents.

CSS wasfounded in 2007 by New Yorkers David Dabscheck and Adam Sager, two entrepeneurs with a focus on private and corporate security,who bemoanedthe vulnerability of their Manhattan synagogue.

Dabscheckhad narrowly escaped a terrorist bombingin London years before, while Sager hadserved in the Israel Defense Forces. Theybegan with one volunteer team in New York, but demand for their services soon spread.

CSS volunteers at a training session(Photo: CSS)

Anti-Jewish assaults have only grown since then, culminating in 2018's attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in which a gunman massacred 11 worshipers. Last year brought another shooting at a Poway, California, temple; a rampage at a Jersey City kosher grocery that left three bystanders and the two attackers dead; and a machete attack at a Hanukkah party in Monsey, New York, that killed a rabbi.

For Bernstein, the events were transformative.

He was on his way to Jersey City for a meetingwith Jewish leaders last December when he heard about a shootingat a Jewish cemetery that started the onslaught. He quickly shifted gears and ended up outside the kosher groceryas bullets flew through the neighborhood.

"I was standing afew hundred yards from the shooting," he said. "I spoke to law enforcement at the scene and anxious families of students who were being held in their schools."

The next morning, he and other Jewish leaders recited the kaddish, Judaism's prayer of mourning, at a synagogue next to the store.

Two weeks later came the attack in Monsey at which five were stabbed.Bernstein rushed to the scene, where he spoke to stunned community members.

"I've reacted to many incidents over the years, but to actually be there inreal time on the scene as these thingswere unraveling ...that changed me as a person."

Evan Bernstein is the new CEO of Community Security Services, an organization training volunteers to protect Jewish institutions and Jewish events. Bernstein is pictured in the The Garden of Remembrance in White Plains, created to honor the memories of the millions of men, women and children destroyed in the Holocaust. The sculptor Rita Rapaport created the "Gates of Remembrance," to memorialize the suffering and death of millions during the Nazi era from 1933 to 1945.(Photo: AMY NEWMAN, NORTHJERSEY.COM/ USA TODAY NETWORK)

"The Jewish community is utterly terrified," he told a reporter at the time. "No one should have to live like this."

Bernstein had been at the ADL since 2013, sounding the alarm overthe rise in bias attacks. Whenhe got a call from an organization that aimedto thwart such threats, his interest was piqued.

"Iwant to be in a position where I dont just verbally respond as a spokespersonbut actually try to empower the Jewish community," he said. "Imagine if there had been a CSS detail there [at the rabbi's home in Monsey].Would the perpetrator have been able to come in?"

Ironically, Bernstein's non-observant parents rarely took him to synagogue as he was growing up in East Lyme, Connecticut, aside from visits for the high holidays.

But his father, a nonprofit leader in southeastern Connecticut, and mother, who headedthespecial education program athis elementary school, imbued him with a strongsense of social justice and inspired him to give back, he said.

In adulthood, he became more drawn to religion. He and his wife and four children attend an Orthodox shul in Connecticut.

Among Bernstein'simmediate goals at CSSis to expand the group's ranks of volunteers, who must commit to several weeksof training and devote several hours weekly toprotecting their institutions.

He's also eager to reach out to younger people, particularly those on college campuses. "People need to start thinking about protecting their community at a much younger age," he said, adding that the average volunteer is 50 years old. "If they begin training while they are in school, they will continue to be active in protecting their institutions when they are older."

Evan Bernstein is the new CEO of Community Security Services, an organization training volunteers to protect Jewish institutions and Jewish events. Bernstein is pictured in the The Garden of Remembrance in White Plains, created to honor the memories of the millions of men, women and children destroyed in the Holocaust. The garden walls are inscribed with the names of 26 places where Jews and other victims of Nazi persecution were tortured and murdered.(Photo: AMY NEWMAN, NORTHJERSEY.COM/ USA TODAY NETWORK)

At the ADL, where Bernstein eventually rose to national vice-president, colleagues praised his appointment.

It's "an exciting opportunity to lead and reimagine an organization dealing with the important issue of Jewish communal security," said Jonathan Greenblatt, the group's CEO. "We wish him every success in this important new role and hope to find ways to collaborate for the benefit of our community."

Bernstein's move to CSS raises a sensitive question: Have efforts by the ADL and other groups to spread tolerance been a failure?

"You never know howmuch education changedpeoples' attitudes," he offered.

Still, he said, "if you look at American society and what's happened over the past five years ... the people who have anti-Semiticattitudes are acting on itmore. Thats where CSS pays a role, in empowering the Jewish community to understand that the threat is there, and security and empowerment are critical."

Deena Yellin covers religion for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to her work covering how the spiritual intersects with our daily lives,please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email:yellin@northjersey.comTwitter:@deenayellin

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He used to preach tolerance to beat anti-Semitism. Now he's training Jews to fight back - NorthJersey.com

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