Ex-Shin Bet officer trains East Bay JCC guards

The summer saw arson attacks damage three Sacramento-area synagogues, an outbreak of hate-crime sniper shootings in the Midwest, then shootings that wounded five at the North Valley Jewish Community Center outside Los Angeles and killed a Filipino postal worker nearby.

In the aftermath of those incidents, Jewish communal organizations across the country went on alert, some turning toward security firms for protection.

The Contra Costa Jewish Community Center in Walnut Creek quickly hired HighCom Security, a small firm headed by 38-year-old Yochi Cohen.

A former Israel Defense Force Shin Bet and foreign ministry officer, Cohen knows security.

He has protected his troops and provided security for former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and the Israeli consul general in San Francisco. In 1982 he was part of the first Israeli unit to enter Lebanon and advance to Beirut; the successful invasion led to a cease-fire two days later.

It is Cohen's inherent knowledge of the threats and dangers that can plague the Jewish and Israeli community that helped his company win the job at the CCJCC.

"After the Granada Hills shooting, we formed a security task force to research and develop a whole security program," said JCC assistant executive director Debrah Miller. "The task force liked the fact that [Cohen] was Jewish and Israeli-trained. He understood the importance of protecting this kind of site."

Cohen, a sabra who now lives in San Francisco with his wife of 12 years, believes he has an edge when it comes to protecting the masses.

"I had tried other business ventures after I moved here," he said. "But, I decided to do what I have the strong competitive advantage in."

Cohen started developing those skills at the age of 18 when he began service in the Israeli army. He soon became an officer and later was promoted to company commander in two separate special military units. "I enjoyed the military — it was like a competition to be the best I could be," he said.

Though Cohen's life on the frontline put him in constant jeopardy, he said he was more concerned about losing other soldiers in his troop.

"The toughest thing was going to the mothers and telling them their sons had died," Cohen said. "But they were my soldiers so I had to do it."

He left the army in 1984 and joined the Shin Bet, Israel's secret service, protecting Shamir until 1991.

He then joined the foreign ministry, serving as officer in charge of security in Cyprus. After a short stay, Cohen said he and his wife were "rewarded" with a transfer to San Francisco where he served two years as viceconsul in charge of security for the Israeli Consulate.

At the end of his tenure, Cohen could opt to go back to Israel or stay in San Francisco. Because his wife had begun working toward her Ph.D. in industrial psychology at U.C. Berkeley, the Cohens chose to remain. That was seven years ago.

In the past three years, he has built his successful, growing company, HighCom, from the ground up.

The S.F.-based business offers a variety of products from all over the world. These include redesigned helmets and bulletproof vests from Israel; hand-held and walk-through metal detectors; and the Mad Robot, a portable, battery-powered, radio-controlled robot that can carry a range of target systems and emulate human running patterns for law enforcement training purposes.

His company provides services to nonprofits, law enforcement agencies, corporations and sometimes even private citizens in need of protection.

Cohen maintains a hands-on approach to his company by meeting with prospective clients to survey their site and determine which products or services they need.

The CCJCC chose to have a security guard, personally trained by Cohen, walking the grounds each day when children are present.

So far, so good. "I once saw a man come into the center with a bag of groceries," said CCJCC's Miller. "The guard stopped him and checked the bag."

Miller said the only threats that the center has encountered are "a few mysterious packages," but she believes the security guard's presence is comforting to many inside the building.

"There's always the debate whether it's worth the price to retain a security firm," said Miller. "But ultimately, it's the parents who bring their children here who decide that it's more important than cost to protect the safety of our children."