Security in the age of terror
Synagogues grapple with keeping congregants safe while providing a warm welcome
In the wake of shootings targeting Jewish institutions in Poway, Calif., and Pittsburgh, as well as a rise in anti-Semitic incidents across the country, synagogues are faced with the challenge of tightening security while providing a welcoming environment.
Understandably, synagogues are reluctant to publicly share specifics about increased security initiatives. Several told NJJN they had been in contact with local police, and many said they were requiring photo identification to enter for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.
The Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey established a security task force several years ago to address communal needs and enhance security and preparedness at Jewish institutions. Federation plays “a key role” in helping local institutions get security grants, obtain high-level expert preparedness training, learn how to prioritize security improvements, and assess security needs, according to federation executive director Susan Antman. She added that federation has also helped bring in millions of dollars in security enhancements.
The task force maintains close relationships with public safety and law-enforcement professionals, and federation has a portal on its website for reporting incidents.
Harry Glazer, who is in charge of security at Orthodox Congregation Ahavas Achim in Highland Park, where he is also a vice president, said the federation had arranged for the state police and homeland security to do a full assessment of the shul.
While the congregation’s doors formerly were left unlocked during services and programs, for the last eight months they have been locked at all times. Glazer said members enter through a rear door, which has a lock with a passcode known only to congregants. Security cameras have also been installed, and the synagogue is recruiting greeters and screeners to monitor the front entrance during services and events.
Rabbi David Bassous of Congregation Etz Ahaim, a Sephardic Orthodox synagogue also in Highland Park, said the shul has had a security guard for several years and, with the help of federation, received a grant to “harden” security. He declined to give specifics.
David Kobb, security chair at Conservative Congregation Ahavat Olam in Howell, said that in light of recent events, additional measures are being taken, including keeping all external doors locked; when only one person is in the building, the office door is also locked. Eleven years ago, when the synagogue was renovated, a buzzer and automatic door opener were installed on the front door.
In preparation for the High Holidays, the Howell Police went through the building several months ago, and the synagogue has offered to let the department use its building for security training, although the offer hasn’t yet been taken up.
“I wouldn’t say people are scared, but they are concerned,” said Kobb, although the synagogue also is getting “a little” pushback from some congregants who don’t like the new constraints.
Kobb said the facility has also applied to FEMA and the state for grants to help cover the cost of security measures such as installing shatterproof glass.
Board member Eleanor Edelstein of the Young Israel of Aberdeen/Congregation Bet Tefilah said that congregants are more aware of their surroundings these days: “Given the tenor of the times, people are more vigilant.”
However, because of the relatively small size of the Orthodox shul, those attending services and events are usually recognized by Edelstein or others.
“If they are somebody new, they are welcomed,” said Edelstein. “We always need 10 men for a service, so it’s nice to have new people, and we have always paid attention to who is walking in and out, because we are a very warm, friendly congregation.”
The synagogue is taking added security measures, she said, including contacting the local police.
At Reform Temple B’nai Shalom in East Brunswick, Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer noted that balancing security concerns while remaining welcoming is a challenge.
“We want people to feel welcome and feel the warmth of being part of a community of other Jews and this congregation,” he said. “But we’ve also had to take steps for the safety of everyone who attends our religious school, services, and programs.”
Even before the incidents in Pittsburgh and Poway, the temple had put in place new security measures. Those have been enhanced since those tragedies.
“I think people are very saddened we have to put these security measures in place, but we are looking to reassure our congregation,” said Eisenkramer. “We want our congregants to know they are secure and safe while continuing to come together to learn, pray, and teach our children.”