Firearms or Open Arms?
U.S. Synagogues Wrestle With New Security Challenges After Pittsburgh Shooting

Jewish organizations have been ramping up security protocols for more than 15 years, but will now have to balance safety factors with a desire to be welcoming

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By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

In her 30 years as a rabbi, Denise Eger says she has never felt so vulnerable as she has since a gunman entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last Saturday and killed 11 Jewish congregants.

“I’ve never been more scared. It’s been very harrowing,” says Eger, the rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, California. “I’ve been talking with a lot of colleagues over the last few days, and those of us who lead worship on a regular basis are very vulnerable. We’re on the bimah,” in front of the congregation, “and sometimes there’s nowhere to go,” she says.

While her urban Reform temple was founded to welcome those who might feel marginalized elsewhere, like LGBTQ Jews, Kol Ami has had to keep its parking lot gate closed this week and adopt a new policy: No entry to anyone unless they are expected by synagogue staff.

“Oftentimes, people want to come to the synagogue – we may not know them, they just want to come in and pray in a sacred space,” Eger says. “Right now I had to tell my staff unless we know them or are expecting them, we’re not letting people in the building. And it breaks my heart.”

It is a challenge synagogues across the United States are struggling with as they try to meet the need for increased security to protect their own constituents while not becoming closed off and inaccessible.

Following last Saturday’s mass shooting, when Robert Bowers entered the synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood armed with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and three handguns, President Donald Trump said an armed guard inside the synagogue would have been able to stop him. But security experts in the Jewish community reject that idea.

“It is an unmatched fight on any day when someone has an assault rifle,” says Michael Masters, national director and CEO of the Secure Community Network – a joint venture between the Jewish Federations of North America and Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

David Pollock also says having armed guards at synagogues wouldn’t ensure their security. He is director of public policy and Jewish security at the New York Jewish Community Relations Council, which has about 1,000 synagogues and 600 Jewish schools – more than any other location outside of Israel – in its catchment area.

Pollock says that when terrorists attacked Istanbul’s Neve Shalom synagogue in 1986, “The first thing they did was take out two armed police officers. The attackers shot them with automatic weapons. Having armed guards is not a panacea,” he tells Haaretz.

Contrary to Trump’s implication that congregations like Tree of Life have not sufficiently prepared for the possibility of terrorist attack, Jewish organizations have been ramping up security protocols for more than 15 years.

The Anti-Defamation League published its first guide to security strategies for Jewish institutions back in 2003.

When the Secure Community Network began in 2004, two Jewish communities had full-time security directors. Masters says today there are between 30 and 35 across the country. And Pollock says planning for “active shooters has been increasing for more than a decade.” In fact, the Tree of Life synagogue itself had done active-shooter response training last year.

Yet the Pittsburgh murders are driving synagogues and others to look at what more they can do to keep congregants safe.

Welcoming yet secure

In Europe, Jewish institutions are often unmarked, surrounded by concrete bollards and high walls or concertina wire to prevent intrusion. But Masters questions whether this approach would be acceptable in the United States.

“We strive to create a nation where we do not have to put barbed wire or military-style entrances at our community facilities,” he says. “There is a goal of being safe and secure, and balancing it with a desire to feel as though we are able to practice our faith freely.”

Paul DeMatteis is a private security consultant who has worked with some 1,000 schools and organizations, with all but about 25 of them Jewish groups. “The question everyone is concerned about is how we keep the same culture and friendly warm environment, and also put people through a metal detector,” he tells Haaretz.

While few, if any, synagogues are installing metal detectors, many are reconsidering their security policies and protocols. Police departments across the country reached out to their local Jewish institutions as soon as they became aware of the Pittsburgh shooting, and are providing increased visible police patrolling around synagogues. And national Jewish agencies are holding security briefings for constituents.

“I have been inundated with calls” since last Saturday, says Pollock. “The good news is people are waking up to something they should have woken up to a while ago. They are going past the denial into, ‘Hey, this could happen, God forbid.’ I keep preaching that they have a way to control who comes into their building.

“You have to be both warm and welcoming, and safe and secure,” he continues. “They don’t contradict each other. People now want to know that if they come to pray or send their kids to a Jewish school, they want to feel they’re being taken care of.”

The cost factor

Beefing up security costs money. Since 2007, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has allocated $173.5 million to nonprofit organizations at high risk of terrorist attack, says Pollock. Roughly a quarter of that money, $46 million, has gone to nonprofits in New York State. And 90 percent of that has gone to Jewish institutions, he adds.

New York State also provides funding to nonpublic schools like yeshivas and Jewish day schools, says Deborah Zachai, director of education affairs at Agudath Israel of America. Grants are allocated at $35 per student to go toward security assessments, staff training, equipment purchases and security guards. Agudath Israel ran a yeshiva summit a week before the Pittsburgh murders and included a session on security, at which Pollock and a Homeland Security official spoke.

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner says security was beefed up at his Temple Emanu-El in Closter, New Jersey, after protesters appeared at the synagogue during the Gaza war of 2014 and he received death threats.

The large Conservative synagogue, in an affluent New York City bedroom community, has won multiple grants from the Department of Homeland Security and invested “hundreds of thousands of dollars to ensure we tighten up any vulnerable spot,” says Kirshner. He says 15 percent of the synagogue’s $3 million annual budget is spent on security. Armed guards are always present whenever anyone is in the synagogue building, the rabbi adds, with some undercover and sitting in the pews as if they were congregants.

He adds, though, that the synagogue “hit the pause button” on making further upgrades recently, “because we didn’t feel the same fire under our feet.” Still, “the wake-up call for all of us is what happened in Squirrel Hill.”

The congregation has been in touch with local police, the county sheriff’s department and their private security consultant this week, and is enhancing safety measures, which the rabbi declined to specify.

The new security norm

Measures being recommended by security experts are, first and foremost, ensuring that the only people who can gain easy entry into a synagogue building are those who are supposed to be there.

Entrance doors should be able to resist an intruder’s attempts for at least 10 minutes, says DeMatteis. There should be greeters at ground level, standing away from the entrance, who can converse with anyone they don’t recognize and determine if they are Jewish – much the way El Al security agents do at airports, he says. And synagogue doors need to be lockable.

“Look like a hard target, be a hard target, and be ready to respond to a critical situation quickly,” is DeMatteis’ advice. “I’m not saying those poor people in Pittsburgh did something wrong. But moving forward, the new norm is going to be a scenario of not allowing anyone into a synagogue without security eyes on them.”

This is going to require a culture shift in the Jewish community, he says. “Anti-Semitism is always going to be there. You want to look like a hard target so an attacker says it’s not worth” trying to get in.

Secure Community Network’s current focus is on creating “standardized skill sets across the community, like we do with fire drills,” says Masters. “It’s a rare person who only goes into one Jewish institution. They may go to a shul and a JCC. The buildings may be different, but the process should be the same.”

Months and years

Numerous security briefings have been held in the United States since the Pittsburgh shootings.

The Secure Community Network coordinated a phone briefing between the FBI and hundreds of American-Jewish organization staff members and executives last Sunday. FBI Director Christopher Wray spoke to those on the line.

“He emphasized the commitment of the bureau and federal law enforcement to our community and offered his condolences,” says Masters. The FBI chief spoke about “the criticality of law enforcement and faith-based communities working together, and offered his commitment that the FBI would do everything they could,” says Masters. “It was a meaningful statement of support, especially at a time like this.

“What we have to do is ensure that this is not a discussion for this week, but that it’s a discussion we begin to have for a whole community for the coming months and years.”

And private security consultant DeMatteis says he has developed updated guidelines for Jewish organizations, slated to be made public Thursday at a meeting to be attended by about 100 representatives of Jewish groups.

Meanwhile, in West Hollywood, Eger is trying to figure out the right balance between safety and openness going forward. “Everybody’s on edge. Both the angry people, the anti-Semites, are agitated and also all of us in the Jewish community,” she says. “I’m not sure we’ll have to keep the gate locked and closed all the time, but for now we’re going to err on the side of caution.”

But Eger says one concern for synagogues is the possibility of copycat attacks. Indeed, there are worrisome indicators: On Wednesday, anti-Semitic graffiti was left on buildings in Brooklyn Heights and an Orthodox synagogue in Irvine, California.

Radical hospitality

But at least one rabbi is bucking recommendations to hire armed guards and lock the doors.

Michael Adam Latz is senior rabbi at Minneapolis’ Shir Tikvah Congregation. “We know we cannot arm our way to safety. It doesn’t work,” he tells Haaretz. “So we’re going to keep our commitment to radical hospitality and keep our doors open for all the wandering and wondering who are looking for deep connection in Jewish life.”

While his synagogue, which has over 500 households, annually reviews its threat assessment safety plan and meets with the local Jewish Community Relations Council, Latz says his security focus is on being connected to other local faith communities.

On Friday night, “the local Catholic church and an interfaith group are lining up on the sidewalk outside Shir Tikvah to welcome us to our services,” he says. “Part of our building a safe community is being in deep relationships with our neighbors.”