Amid push for shul security funds, anti-Semitic violence ‘truly alarming’

Amid push for shul security funds, anti-Semitic violence ‘truly alarming’

Following Poway attack, calls for political leaders to probe white nationalism

A makeshift memorial for the victims of the Chabad of Poway. A gunman inspired by white nationalists opened fire on Passover, killing one and injuring three. Getty Images
A makeshift memorial for the victims of the Chabad of Poway. A gunman inspired by white nationalists opened fire on Passover, killing one and injuring three. Getty Images

In the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in which a white supremacist shot and killed 11 congregants during Shabbat services last October, many synagogues looked for ways to pay for additional security. But after Saturday’s shooting by a suspected white nationalist in a Poway, Calif., synagogue killed one congregant, money is no longer an issue, according to the president of a local board of rabbis.

“If there were any holdouts on synagogue boards because of concern over how to pay for additional security, they are not able to hold out anymore,” said Rabbi Lester Bronstein, president of the New York Board of Rabbis. “And that is not stopping people from coming to shul — they are not being scared away.”

While synagogues take steps to ramp up security, they are paying for it either through donations or through a special security fee imposed on all congregants. In addition, many are seeking financial assistance from a $50 million federal security grant available to all nonprofits. For the first time since the grants were offered five years ago, they may now be used to pay for security guards, according to David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. The grants, which are for as much as $100,000, are awarded to selected institutions who apply by May 8.

Although some have expressed concern that the heightened security might make American synagogues resemble those in much of Europe, which are protected with armed security guards who verify the identity of all visitors, Rabbi Jack Moline, president of Interfaith Alliance, said he does not believe “Jews in the United States — or any faith community — are ready to turn houses of worship into the fortified and guarded centers like those in much of the rest of the world. For all of our legitimate concern, the level of danger is still small and likely deterred by much fewer extreme measures.”

The Anti-Defamation League reported “near-historic levels of anti-Semitism in 2018, including a doubling of the number of victims of anti-Semitic assaults — 59 compared with 21 in 2017.” In addition, it reported a surge in white supremacist activity, punctuated by the shooting spree in Pittsburgh, the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history.

Overall, it said there was a 5 percent decline in the total number of anti-Semitic incidents last year — 1,879 compared with 1,986 incidents reported in 2017. Nevertheless, the number was 48 percent higher than the total in 2016 and 99 percent higher than in 2015. And the organization found also that anti-Semitic attacks, harassment, and vandalism were “still pervasive in the U.S,” with all but four states reporting anti-Semitic incidents. The greatest number of incidents were in those states with the largest Jewish populations — California (341), New York (340), New Jersey (200), and Massachusetts (144).

In New Jersey, this year’s total number of anti-Semitic incidents represents a 33 percent increase over the state’s average number of recorded incidents over the last decade. A significant increase in incidents in New Jersey were recorded during the last quarter of 2018. In the aftermath of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, New Jersey saw a 76 percent in anti-Semitic incidents in comparison to the exact same period in 2017, with 65 incidents, up from 37 the year before.

“No one should ever live with the fear that they will be assaulted or harassed simply because of their religion or faith,” said Evan Bernstein, regional director of the ADL’s New York/New Jersey office. “We must condemn this hateful behavior and continue to work together to make our communities safe for all New Jersey residents.”

David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, pointed out that the FBI has said Jews remain the primary target of religiously motivated hate crimes and he called on Congress to hold hearings on violence motivated by white supremacist ideologies.

“When will this open hunting season on Jews end?” he asked in a statement following the Poway shooting. “Once again, American Jews are compelled to ask what more can be done to protect houses of worship, indeed all Jewish institutions, even as we extend our deep condolences to the family and friends of Lori Gilbert-Kaye, and a full recovery of those wounded, including a child, in this heinous attack during a Shabbat service on the last day of Passover.”

In its audit released this week, the ADL found also that some 13 percent or 249 anti-Semitic incidents nationally were attributable to known extremist groups or individuals inspired by extremist ideologies — the highest number since 2004.

Jacques Berlinerblau, director of the Center for Jewish Civilization at George Washington University, suggested that part of the reason for this increase has been the “coarsening of the public discourse from the top. …. The president doesn’t say anything about Jews, but he speaks about minorities. He says things about Muslims, Mexicans, and women and he will articulate sentiments about other groups that open floodgates for others to go down well-worn paths of discrimination. From the moment that he cannot categorically repudiate white supremacists, as his predecessors have done for half a century, he sets the tone for the expression of anti-Semitic sentiments in thought and in action.”

In a conference call with reporters, Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the ADL, said it is “incumbent for our leaders in public and private sectors to lead … [and] clearly denounce anti-Semitism and hate long before it becomes a problem.… [They should] reinforce shared values like decency and fairness and respect for all people regardless of faith or race.”

He said also that “we are seeing a normalization of anti-Semitism. There have always been swastikas in public spaces and cemetery desecrations, but what is new and troubling is its pervasiveness. It has nearly doubled since 2015. And we know extremists feel emboldened because they are telling us as much on message boards.”

Earlier this month, President Donald Trump was asked if he believed white nationalism was a rising threat worldwide. He said he did not, believing they are “a small group of people that have very, very serious problems.” But the AJC has called on the U.S. government to make the examination of white supremacists a national priority, and Greenblatt said the ADL believes “white supremacy is a global terror threat.” He pointed to the “radicalization of individuals who emerge as lone wolves, like the shooter this weekend and Robert Bowers.”

Bowers is the suspect in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. The suspect in last Saturday’s shooting at the Chabad at Poway is John Earnest, 19, who claimed to have been inspired by last month’s massacre of Muslims at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, by a self-radicalized white supremacist.

The funeral for the woman he is charged with killing, Lori Gilbert-Kaye, 60, was held at the same synagogue he attacked and was attended by a reported 1,000 mourners. It was officiated by Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, who was shot in the hand by the gunman.

Among those attending was Michael Masters, national director and CEO of the Secure Community Network, the national homeland security initiative of the North American Jewish community. He said he had a chance to meet with the border patrol agent who fired a shot at the gunman as he fled the synagogue when his AR-15 style gun jammed after he shot and killed Gilbert-Kaye and wounded three others. Moments earlier, an Army veteran, Oscar Stewart, confronted the gunman, tried to tackle him, and chased him out of the synagogue.

“Those men did instinctively in a time of crisis what we would hope all first responders and military [personnel] would do — put themselves in harm’s way to defend the people in the shul,” Masters said. “The latest events have focused attention on how to increase security, and part of that conversation can be about physically securing the building, training, and planning. Having a guard at the door and a [security] camera is not a security strategy. One of the readings at the funeral referenced the phrase, ‘The Lord will give strength to His people; The Lord will bless His people with peace.’ We start that phrase with the idea of strength — internal and external — to create the conditions for peace.”

He said that since the Pittsburgh shooting, his office has received “over 1,000 requests for service, an indicator that the community recognizes how critical it is that our community is open for business. We wouldn’t want anyone to second guess if it is safe to walk into a synagogue, a JCC,
a day school, summer camp, or Jewish federation.”

“Local police can also do an assessment,” the JCRC’s Pollack said. “We are providing a deep dive, looking at institution’s security equipment, policies, planning, and training in terms of what you do in case of an active shooter.… People have three options: run and avoid the bad guy, hide if you can’t get away, or fight and confront the bad guy if you have no other option.… In the second mosque attack in New Zealand, one of the congregants picked up a credit card machine and knocked the gun out of his hand. He was then arrested.… Do anything to disrupt the killer.”

Pollock noted that after the Pittsburgh shooting he anticipated there would be a record number of applicants for the $50 million federal security grant. In the wake of the Poway shooting and with the application deadline only days away, he said he would expect there will be even more.

Stewart Ain is a staff writer for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.

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