staying safe

Jewish movements confront tensions between security and welcoming ahead of High Holidays

The High Holidays will mark the largest synagogue crowds since January, when an attack on Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, spurred a renewed focus on physical security measures.

How can synagogues both welcome congregants of all backgrounds and keep them secure?

Many congregations have been asking that question for years, but it’s become especially relevant in the run-up to this year’s High Holiday season as communities have both experienced a rise in antisemitism and have placed an increased focus on diversity and inclusion. The two values can conflict, say some Jewish leaders, during instances when a mandate to keep out those who seem like they don’t belong ends up excluding or discriminating against Jews of color.

For some synagogues, these will be the first entirely in-person Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services since 2019. And they will mark the largest synagogue crowds since January, when an attack on Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, spurred a renewed focus on physical security measures and an increase in federal funding for synagogue security.

Against that backdrop, experts asserted last week that it is possible, if not always easy, to secure synagogues while creating a welcoming atmosphere for the diverse spectrum of American Jews. A webinar convened on Thursday by the Secure Community Network (SCN), which coordinates security for Jewish institutions, included officials who oversee diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at national Jewish organizations and religious movements. A study from last year by the Jews of Color Initiative found that most Jews of color surveyed have experienced discrimination at synagogues or congregations.

“We have this tension of, we want to make sure that our communities are safe, we want to make sure that we’re keeping our eyes open… and we also want to make sure that people feel this sense of belonging when they come into our space,” said Rabbi Isaiah Rothstein, a Jew of color who serves as a rabbinic scholar and public affairs advisor for The Jewish Federations of North America. “It is hard sometimes to strike the balance, but it is possible. They’re not mutually exclusive.”

The panelists all recommended that security personnel monitor for suspicious behavior, rather than focusing on a person’s appearance or race. And they said that all those who are tasked with watching an entrance should receive training in both security protocols and recognizing bias. 

“Anybody who’s in a security position, whether they are a uniformed law enforcement officer or a 70-year-old, 5-foot-2 petite white woman who’s an usher, should be aware of the fact that in this moment I need to be self-aware that I have a position of power and authority,” said Gulienne Rollins-Rishon, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s racial justice specialist. “There is a power dynamic at play that the person in enforcement may not realize is traumatic or triggering.”

SCN has for years said the key to synagogue security is looking out for behavior, and advocates against racial profiling. The organization has also previously recommended that synagogues rely on trained guards rather than armed congregants. 

“We want to be able to do something other than, sort of, just trust these gut instincts,” said Jessica Anderson, the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland’s regional security director. “What we’re looking for is an accumulation of things that are potentially problematic. But give the person the benefit of the doubt unless they are demonstrating [something] to the contrary.”

Stephen Eberle, SCN’s Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regional security director, also said that ostensibly suspicious behavior could indicate a mental health issue or drug addiction, rather than a physical threat. 

“Why do we feel that as a security professional this type of activity is somewhat suspicious?” he asked. “Could they be under the influence of alcohol? Could they be under the influence of drugs? What type of help or assistance could we provide?… We don’t want our security personnel judging others based on things like physical appearance, their attire, their nationality, the language they speak, their hygiene.”

Likewise, Yolanda Savage-Narva, assistant vice president of racial equity, diversity, and inclusion for the Union for Reform Judaism, said that a focus on diversity should expand beyond race and should include training on categories such as disability and socioeconomic status. 

“In addition to immutable traits that people use to discriminate against or ‘other’ people, in addition to people’s self-identities, to people’s maybe obvious and not-so-obvious disabilities — we know that those are ways that people use to other, discriminate and maybe even profile when it comes to belonging to the Jewish community,” she said. “There are other identities that people can’t necessarily see that are also used to other or discriminate.”