The US has seen a rise in anti-Semitic incidents over the past few years, as has New York State.
Some of the incidents have had a high profile, such as the deadly terrorist shootings at synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway, California, during the past year. But often, incidents involving vandalism, harassment, and assaults happen out of the public eye. The Anti-Defamation League tallies those incidents annually, and over the past five years the numbers have increased dramatically. In a report, the ADL said it counted 340 anti-Semitic incidents across New York in 2018, up from 198 in 2015.
The trend has many in the local Jewish community concerned about safety at synagogues, schools, agencies, and other religious and cultural centers. And that, in large part, is why the Jewish Federation of Greater Rochester is bringing on retiring Brighton Police Chief Mark Henderson as its new community director of security.
"Looking at just the state of the world we're in today," says Meredith Dragon, the Federation's CEO, "the issue with shootings across the country, general security, we felt like this was the right time to make sure we have somebody who's working with all of our agencies and institutions," of which there are 30 locally.
The organization's intent with the position is "not to turn the Jewish community into a fortress by any stretch of the imagination, but to make sure that we're following proper security protocols, making sure people are trained in general safety procedures," Dragon says.
In his new position, Henderson will work with local public safety officials and help Rochester-area synagogues, schools, and agencies put effective security measures in place. He might help one facility set up a single point of entry to improve its security, or he may lead active shooter drills for groups. And when security measures have a cost, he wants to help groups find funding to cover it, he says.
Henderson has been Brighton's police chief for the past nine years, capping off a 33-year career at the department. As an officer and chief he worked with Brighton schools, institutions, and places of worship — including synagogues — to help them improve their security practices.
For example, the Brighton Police Department recently partnered with the Federation to hold a multi-denominational house of worship training that 260 people attended. The event included active shooter drills, discussion of threat assessments, and training on how to stop bleeding.
The job with the Federation is "an extension of what I already do, if you will," he says.
Other faith groups face safety threats and harassment, not just the Jewish community. Muslims have also been targeted in acts of terrorist violence; in March a white supremacist shot and killed 51 people in two Christchurch, New Zealand, mosques.
As leaders at the Islamic Center of Rochester, which is in Brighton, began to prepare for Ramadan, they talked with Henderson about security. And he helped them coordinate with other local and state police agencies for a large Eid al-Fitr celebration — the traditional end of Ramadan — at the Dome Arena in Henrietta.
Henderson says that through his new Jewish Federation position he hopes to have the opportunity to continue working with other faith groups as well; the Federation is involved in several interfaith programs.
Initially, Henderson's work will focus on Greater Rochester, but the position ties into the Secure Community Network, an initiative of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. After he's settled in, he'll also work on security efforts across Western New York.
"It's a great collaboration, a great effort," Henderson says.