SAFE Louisville: Q&A with Bill Altman, Ben Vaughan and Sara Klein Wagner

Community recently interviewed SAFE Louisville co-chairs, Bill Altman and Ben Vaughan, along with Trager Family JCC and Jewish Federation of Louisville’s President & CEO, Sara Wagner, for an end-of-year update.

Q: Can you remind the community about SAFE Louisville’s history and how it came to be?

A: (Sara) Almost five years ago, at a meeting of agency and congregation executives, rabbis and board chairs, a question was posed to the group by then JCL chair Jon Fleischaker. He asked the group of community leaders to identify the most important issues facing our organizations and how we might work together. The group quickly identified the varying levels of security and protocols in place and the priority to ensure our facilities remain open and inviting places. 

The Federation convened additional discussions on the increasing safety and security needs facing all Jewish communities. Our Federation board supported researching what other Federations were doing to create change and support other organizations. Before SAFE Louisville was formally created, board member Bill Altman stepped up to be part of the solution. He dug into the best practices in other communities and worked hand-in-hand with our staff and truly led the formation of SAFE Louisville with the Federation board prioritizing this initiative as a board responsibility. 

Q: How did you know what security measures would be effective?

A: (Sara) In 2018, at a national conference of Federation executives, I was asked to introduce Michael Masters, the National Director and CEO of Secure Community Network (SCN), who was leading a session on security just weeks after starting his new position. It was clear that SCN was a much-needed component and there would be an increasing presence as the official homeland security and safety initiative of the organized Jewish communities in North America. This was prior to the horrific shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. My colleagues and I left the conference grateful that Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) had the foresight to create SCN several years earlier and were reassured by the opportunity for communities our size to take advantage of the resources. 

Q: What specific actions did you then take to get SAFE Louisville off the ground?

A: (Bill) Once we decided to develop a community-wide safety and security plan, we took three steps to get started.

First, under the auspices of the JCL Board of Directors, we convened a committee—now known as SAFE Louisville—comprised of representatives from each of the synagogues and Jewish agencies in our community. Many institutions already had security committees convened, so SAFE Louisville is comprised of these lay leaders as well as professional staff and clergy.  

Second, we developed a charter for the committee, defining what the scope of our work would be and the terms of engagement. For example, we decided to develop a community-wide security plan, to seek funding for our collective work, and to strive to make our community as a whole safer and more secure. At the same time, we agreed that each agency must retain the right to make decisions on their own behalf, not only to make their organizations safer, but also to strike a balance between security and maintaining a welcoming environment.

Third, the SAFE Louisville committee decided to work with SCN to conduct a baseline security assessment of each Jewish agency in Louisville to identify security strengths, vulnerabilities, and mitigation measures. From that baseline assessment, we developed a plan—what we called “Phase One”—to bring each agency to a minimum standard of physical security by having exterior locks/entry control, alarm systems and related physical security measures.

Q: What is the status of the Phase One plan?

A: (Ben) With this Phase One plan in hand, we approached the Jewish Heritage Fund (JHF) to seek financial support for enhanced security. We are very grateful that JHF was able to support our enhanced security efforts. Getting through Phase One has been challenging during COVID, supply chain issues, and the fact that much of the work that has to be done is driven by volunteers. But I’m happy to report that the security contractor we retained to complete the Phase One physical security mitigation work is nearly finished. 

Q: In addition to physical security, were there any other safety and security measures taken during Phase One?

A: (Bill) One of the most important facets of any safety and security plan is to provide training to facility staff, volunteers and the community at large. At the end of the day, the most effective security method is for the community to be aware, be able to identify security threats and to know what to do in the face of a security event. The SAFE Louisville committee worked with SCN to provide a range of training sessions to the Louisville community.

Together, SAFE Louisville and SCN conducted training for the community, focused on identifying and reporting suspicious activity, countering active threats and providing lifesaving first aid. Two training programs were introduced to the community titled, “Countering Active Threat Training” and “BeAware.” Thus far, we have conducted nineteen training sessions at the Trager Family JCC and at other facilities. 

Q: How has SAFE Louisville’s approach to safety and security compare with what other Jewish communities have done? Specifically, do many other Jewish communities work with SCN?

A: (Ben) As a part of SCN’s national cabinet, I have had the opportunity to network with other members and people in communities similar to ours. Most every community is experiencing the same issues and being a part of SCN helps us understand how other communities deal with these issues. SCN was developed for just this reason. Nothing that we do is just us. We work closely with SCN and our network to address our work in a more neutral fashion and to have the connection to the FBI and law enforcement agencies that we wouldn’t have on our own.

Q: How is the work that SAFE Louisville is doing being funded?

A: (Sara) As Ben noted, we have been incredibly fortunate to have had the local support of the JHF and Jewish Federation. JHF has provided funding in recent years to be able to upgrade security measures congregations and local agencies, assessments and staffing. Funds from the Federation annual campaign, designated gifts from donors and funding from our Federation’s Jewish Foundation have all supported this important work. In addition, our JCL staff has managed the work of SAFE Louisville for the past several years including the leadership of Tom Wissinger, VP and COO, Brian Tabler, Facilities Director, and Paul Reece, Security team member. 

(Ben) It’s a multi-faceted approach. Funding for our security work comes from local sources, national sources and governmental sources. Echoing Sara and Bill, JHF has very much stepped up and been foundational force. They recognize the need for what we are doing and they are financially backing the plan that we have put together.

Nationally, SCN has developed a grant fund that has been used to establish training systems that mid-sized communities like ours can tap into to help bring them in line from security system standpoint. The Federal government’s Department of Homeland Security, through FEMA, also has established the Nonprofit Security Grant Program. This grant program provides security funding to cities and institutions around the country, including churches, mosques, Black communities, to name a few. SCN has done a great job in helping to advocate among Congress to increase this funding by approximately 400% over the years. SCN has also helped our community in writing grant applications to obtain this funding. SCN understands the common language, the process and how to get needed information from officials to fulfill these applications. They have been adamant that Jewish communities apply and receive this funding and have provided the framework to help us get approved. To date, our Jewish community has received over $500,000 from the Nonprofit Security Grant Program.

Q: What are the next steps for SAFE Louisville now that Phase One is nearly complete? 

A: (Bill) There are three key measures we are working on next.

First, the SAFE Louisville Committee decided over a year ago to hire a fulltime security professional – a Regional Security Advisor (RSA) – to help drive our community-wide safety and security plan. The RSA will conduct ongoing security assessments, provide periodic training, respond to specific security threats, facilitate applying for grant support, and provide overall expertise and support for our constantly evolving plan.

Second, we are in the process of evaluating each Jewish agencies’ ability to monitor security threats through cameras and other means so that we can bring every institution to an adequate level of monitoring security, just as we did with physical security.

Third, we are developing a more sophisticated communications system so that we are better prepared to act quickly and to communicate in real time in the face of security events. If there are threats reported to us from local, state or federal sources, who needs to know and how quickly? If there is a threat made against one institution, how will that threat be communicated to others in the community? Rest assured that we do have communication protocols in place, but with technology we can improve our methods/timing of communication both within our community and with law enforcement to make our community safer and more secure. 

Q: Can you give an update on the hiring of a new Regional Security Advisor (RSA) and how this individual will work with the community?

A: (Sara) As many may know, this past summer we hired our first RSA, a former law enforcement officer who served as a senior member of LMPD during a most difficult period for our Louisville community. Recognizing the concerns and the desire to ensure our community remain focused on our safety and security goals, our RSA chose to resign the position. 

(Bill) Since then, we have relaunched our search process, having spent time listening to our community. and have made enhancements to the search process including expanding our hiring panel. It is and has always been our highest priority to ensure that we have the highest caliber person in the position. We are working closely with SCN as they recruit these individuals for SAFE Louisville’s consideration for our next RSA. 

(Sara) As we start the new search process, we are including some additional elements. One complimentary effort is joining JEDI, a new JFNA effort. JEDI stands for Jewish, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. JEDI was designed to support Federations and JCRCs striving to ensure that all of our day-to-day work embraces the diversity of the individuals we serve. JEDI includes a specific focus on safety and security planning and protocols. The timing of joining this cohort is ideal for us. 

We want our community to understand that the RSA is not dictating agency or congregation security protocols but rather serves as a resource to advise each group on what best meets their needs. The RSA will be a resource and a point person to understand the unique needs of every group and the external threats. 

Q: What can the community look forward to from SAFE Louisville and how can the community be involved in the SAFE Louisville initiative?

A: (Ben) The ultimate goal for our community is to feel confident in our ability to identify threats in our community, to react to threats and feel safe in knowing that we have made ourselves as small of a target as possible for people who intend us harm. If harm is committed against, we will be in a position to help ourselves repair our community.

I emphasize that this is not an end-goal situation. This is something that we will continually revise and maintain. It’s like the maintenance on a building – just because we have waxed the floors doesn’t mean we stop cleaning the floors.

(Bill) We will continue to provide ongoing training for our community, and we encourage everyone to attend. These are incredibly effective programs in terms of awareness and readiness. 

We will also be hosting community forums in 2023 to share additional information and have important discussions. Security and safety goes beyond physical risks and threats. We will also be addressing natural disasters and how our community responds. These include tornadoes and floods that our state has seen over the past year. We must create an “all hazards approach” and that’s what we will look to our community to help us build.

(Sara) I am so grateful to Bill Atman and Ben Vaughan for co-chairing the SAFE Louisville committee. They have led our community forward and made us more resilient and stronger. They have devoted countless hours of their time and we are all better for it. 

We look forward to the day very soon when our community has the most well-trained members as well as the most up-to-date security system, communication, action plans and protocols. 

Finally, we look forward to sharing our learnings and expertise with other marginalized or minority communities, be it those who are threatened or attacked because of race, religion, sexual orientation or for any other reason. Once we have confidence in preparing in our community, we look forward to reaching out and sharing.

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