Alarmed, and armed
Three months after Pittsburgh, security concerns testing synagogues. ‘Even rabbis are carrying’
At one area synagogue, armed and uniformed police officers are now visibly stationed at the building. There are also former police and military personnel with concealed carry permits in the sanctuary, approved by the local police chief.
“In the wake of the Pittsburgh terror attack, we immediately moved toward armed security,” said the rabbi.
A Union County rabbi whose synagogue has instituted $35,000 worth of security upgrades, including the hiring of police officers for large events, draws the line at arming congregants.
“We have not, nor will not consider having members armed — the risk is too great,” he said.
It has been three months since 11 worshippers were killed on a Shabbat morning at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, an attack that both raised the fear level of many members of the country’s Jewish community and led to new security practices. Citing security concerns, rabbis and lay leaders at local congregations who spoke to NJJN for this story asked not to be identified.
Some of the security measures include ensuring that doors to the congregation stay locked and installing security cameras and panic buttons in more locations, and having police patrols, cell phones carried on Shabbat, professional guards, and volunteer teams of synagogue members who provide security, according to area congregations.
A heated question in the how-much-security debate is “who’s packing?” At your synagogue, it could be many people.
A growing number of congregations in this country are no longer “no-carry” zones, and those bearing firearms within their buildings include, according to anecdotal reports, members with gun licenses who bring their guns to shul — even on Shabbat.
Though no official statistics are available, the number of U.S. synagogues — including several in New Jersey — that have sent congregants for firearms training has “absolutely” increased in the last few months, said Yonatan Stern, an IDF veteran and director of Cherev Gidon (the sword of Gideon), a private security organization that teaches “IDF techniques” to individuals and organizations in the Jewish community.
Stern said representatives of “quite a few” New Jersey synagogues, including more than half a dozen N.J. rabbis, enrolled in the current winter session, registration for which closed around the time of the Pittsburgh shooting. Most of the participants came from synagogues located in Bergen County except for one in Elizabeth and one in the Deal area.
“The response has been overwhelming. Even rabbis are carrying now,” said Stern, who will offer another training session this spring.
Several congregations have enrolled their leaders and members in security seminars and webinars. Many of the training sessions have been conducted under the auspices of the 12-year-old Community Security Service organization; to date it has trained more than 4,000 volunteers in the Jewish community, and requests for their services have spiked.
At a time when a national debate over gun control rages, many Jewish congregations — including some progressive ones that traditionally had opposed open access to firearms — are putting their members’ safety front and center.
While the Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, and Orthodox movements have supported some form of gun control, the decision about whether to have armed guards outside or armed members in the pews is up to the individual congregations.
Go to a typical U.S. synagogue, especially one with a healthy budget, and you are likely to see security measures in effect.
Or you may not.
“Some of this stuff” done to make synagogues safer is obvious, said an officer of a local synagogue. “Some of it is not so obvious.”
Members of that congregation are not allowed to bring firearms to shul, the lay leader said. “Guns don’t operate the way they do on TV.” In real life, the individual said, accidents happen, targets are missed, and innocent people are shot.
Even the extra guards hired to patrol the perimeter of the building are unarmed, but “we’re seriously considering” hired armed personnel, the officer said.
For some congregations, the cost of hiring a security guard is prohibitive. Others have added a surcharge — from $50 to a few hundred dollars — to members’ annual dues.
In spite of the additional expense, one Union County synagogue decided to hire armed guards post-Pittsburgh after surveying members of the congregation, according to the president. “We polled different segments of the congregation, and all of them, to varying degrees, were in favor,” he said. Parents with children in the synagogue’s pre-school or religious school were “slightly more favorable” than people without kids in the schools, but he said, “All groups were, if not supportive, at least neutral to the presence of armed guards.”
He added, “the feeling of security outweighed” the “welcoming, open environment that we want to project.”
The guards are sometimes hired through local police departments, usually off-duty or retired officers, and sometimes they are hired through a private security firm. Some work alone; others are accompanied by synagogue members who can point out members seeking access to the building, and also point out people who don’t appear to belong in a synagogue.
Do people feel safer?
“We’ll never know, hopefully, if this expense is worth it, but so far, the presence of the guards has not seemed to adversely affect our atmosphere, and people do seem appreciative that they are there,” said the president of the congregation who polled congregants. “If it allows us to maintain or grow membership and involvement and participation, then it will have served its purpose.”
Steve Lipman is a staff writer for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication. He can be reached at email@example.com