Synagogue Safety: A Struggle Between Competing Values

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By Guy Sapirstein, PhD

The security of synagogues (and other Jewish organizations for that matter) has always been a thorny issue. Every terrorist attack in Europe, war or other types of skirmishes between Israel and its neighbors, causes communal and lay leaders to call for more security. Moreover the recent increase in anti-Semitism in the US around and after the election is a legitimate and serious cause for concern. It seems like a “no-brainer”: why not permanently increase security?

In a recent column in the Forward (December 16th, 2016), Rabbi Philip Graubard tells a story of visiting a synagogue in New York and instead of walking around the beautiful sanctuary, leaving after being reprimanded by the security guard. In another anecdote, he describes the security at a synagogue in California, which was reminiscent of going through the TSA line at any airport: metal detectors, guards, etc. At the end of his column he raises the question: How does that experience align with “warm and welcoming”?

Conversations about synagogue safety often miss the complexity of the issue, and the underlying struggle between competing values and approaches. All too often the conversation is dominated by the financial discussion: what does it cost and what can we afford? Missing from the conversation is the acknowledgment that the true cost is difficult to determine, since there are factors such as community engagement, impact on Jewish identity, and the long term impact of the dissonance between ongoing exposure to symbols of insecurity (police, security related technology) at Jewish institutions, within a relatively safe middle class society where such symbols are rare (at least in the US).

Like any conversation about strategy and planning in synagogues, the point of origin needs to be a discussion about values. There is no doubt that safety is a value. Yet, so is engagement, as well as being “warm and welcoming.” With enough money, any building can become fortified, reducing the risk of violence (the most common concern for synagogues) to a minimum. The “minor” issue of cost beyond the budget of most synagogues, masks the real issue: by stressing the value of safety, are we highlighting that it is dangerous to be Jewish? In addition, are we de facto communicating that safety has priority over other values, for example engagement? In other words, are we emphasizing a value that appears to be “urgent” (safety) over a value that is “important” (engagement) but less urgent?

Faced by the juxtaposition of safety and engagement, many boards or committees, often react as though safety and community engagement are a “zero sum proposition” – in other words: the more you have of one, the less you have of the other. Fortunately, that is not inevitable.

Synagogues that are well prepared for adverse circumstances are those where engagement is successfully practiced as well as seen as a community value. Unpacking ‘engagement’ as a value leads to the understanding that engagement is more than simply showing up to services or activities. It also means having a sense of ownership, camaraderie, and respect for the institution and its various rules.

Ensuring safety in a synagogue is accomplished through a process of emergency preparedness. A well-prepared synagogue has a balance of technology and infrastructure solutions as well as ‘people’ and ‘process’ solutions. Maintaining healthy balance between these components (tech/infrastructure, ‘people,’ and ‘process’) depends largely on the degree of engagement of the community – engaged communities can rely on staff and members to be familiar with emergency response protocols, be aware of unusual objects, people, or activity in or around the synagogue. Having this awareness and feeling comfortable enough to communicate the information to the appropriate people is a key component in prevention and effective response.

Synagogues where engagement is not optimal need to rely much more on technology solutions as well as on outsourced security. Those solutions result in greater visibility of the symbols of insecurity, thus reinforcing the notion that “it is dangerous to practice Judaism”, potentially leading to a further decrease in engagement.

Similar to the (welcome) trend toward reducing silos within Jewish organization, safety and security should be included and be “de-siloed.” Where safety and security were the (almost) exclusive purview of the Facilities Director, they should be discussed in a much larger forum. Ownership for safety and security needs to be shared by clergy, operations staff, those responsible for community engagement, as well as lay leaders. This community leadership group should carefully consider the complexity of the issue and avoid reducing safety and security to “gates and guards” and risk compromising the engagement of future generations.

Guy Sapirstein is an organizational consultant who has worked with many Jewish organizations on strategic planning, safety and security, and engagement.

© 2017 Guy Sapirstein, PhD, All Rights Reserved