Synagogues must always be on alert

Synagogues must always be on alert

Once again we have experienced experienced a horrific attack against innocents here at home; this time the victims were college students on the campus of Ohio State University in Columbus. Not all the details have come to light at press time, but it appears that a lone individual of Somali descent drove into a group of pedestrians on a campus sidewalk and then jumped from his vehicle and stabbed bystanders with a butcher knife. Eleven people were injured before a university police officer shot the perpetrator dead. 

The university responded swiftly and immediately put the campus on lockdown — students tweeted from barricaded classrooms, and university buildings were closed. The incident is being investigated for ties to terrorism. 

This violent act and others that may, unfortunately, occur in the weeks and months ahead should serve as a reminder to the Jewish community: We must not become complacent about the safety and security of our synagogues. 

We shudder to think what would happen if, God forbid, our houses of prayer were a target of such merciless terror. Would synagogue leaders and congregants know how to respond? This week’s violence at Ohio State should encourage us to become more proactive, less reactive, when it comes to assessing our communal needs.

Public safety officials are quick to beef up security after brazen attacks such as the mass shooting at an office holiday party in San Bernardino, Calif., a year ago or the rampage in Paris that killed 130, including four people in a kosher grocery store. As time passes, we tend to become less focused on our immediate safety. 

Our schools are among the best examples of preparedness, with students and their teachers practicing how to quickly and safely evacuate the building each month. Although many of their drills are required by law, there’s nothing to prevent synagogues from holding the same type of safety exercises. 

As we gather in congregations in large numbers on a weekly basis we can be seen as targets by those who seek to harm Jews. A number of synagogues employ a local police officer or have volunteer security guards to protect the premises. Government grants have helped to provide for training programs in dealing with security issues at houses of worship, which is fortunate. And those who volunteer their time and commitment are to be commended. But when was the last time, if ever, we practiced evacuating the synagogue on a Shabbat morning? Do members know how to rapidly and safely leave the sanctuary, classrooms, and other rooms in an organized manner? Who is responsible for gathering children who may be playing in the halls? Is there a designated gathering place to account for each family member and unite parents with their children? 

These are some basic security needs for every household that should be readily applied to our houses of worship. Even fire drills seem quaint in our new reality, when students practice how to respond to bomb threats and an active shooter situation. Our synagogues must keep up with the reality of the times in which we live. 

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