U.S. Jewish Communities Face Up to New Security Challenges After Pittsburgh and Poway

Synagogues, schools and community centers wrestle with difficult dilemmas — how to be safe but remain welcoming, and how to fund it all

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
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A security guard standing at the entrance of the Etz Jacob Congregation building in Los Angeles, February 15, 2019.
A security guard standing at the entrance of the Etz Jacob Congregation building in Los Angeles, February 15, 2019.Credit: Marcio Jose Sanchez,AP
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

WASHINGTON — Jewish communities across the United States are debating how to strengthen security measures at their synagogues, schools and community centers in light of the ongoing wave of anti-Semitic incidents.

Over the past two weeks alone, synagogues in the suburbs of Boston and Chicago were subject to arson attempts. Previously, events like these would immediately become national headlines, but seven months after the terror attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and less than a month after a similar attack on a Chabad synagogue in Poway, California, the media seems less interested in attacks that (luckily) did not lead to any fatalities.

>> Read more: America's synagogues are burning: A turning point for U.S. Jews | Opinion

“We are dealing with a new reality and, unfortunately, events like these are happening more often,” says Allen Fagin, executive vice president at the Orthodox Union.

The word “reality” repeatedly came up in conversations Haaretz held over the past week with rabbis and Jewish community leaders from different religious backgrounds all over America. Each and every person interviewed for this story made a statement similar to Fagin’s at some point in the interview.

“The reality of Jewish life in America has changed,” says Rabbi Jamie Gibson, who leads the Reform congregation Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh. “We need to understand that and act accordingly.”

In the aftermath of the attacks in Pittsburgh and Poway, which claimed 12 lives, “I don’t think there’s even one Jewish community where this isn’t being discussed,” says Amy Asin, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism. She is in charge of “strengthening congregations” across the country, and over the past year much of her work has focused on how Reform communities deal with the question of security.

“This comes up in every community — from large synagogues in the big cities to smaller rural communities,” she tells Haaretz. “These communities want to find a balance between three questions: How do we make our communities as safe as possible, while keeping our desire to be open and welcoming communities? And how do we do those two things within the limits of our financial resources? It’s an ongoing struggle.”

Image taken from video provided by the Chicago Police Department showing a person who tried to use Molotov cocktails to cause a fire near Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel Congregation, May 19, 2019.Credit: ,AP

Congregations that do take action on security issues, she adds, face another dilemma: How much to tell their congregants, and through which methods of communication?

“If you send an email update about security measures to the entire community, or post something about it on Facebook, that information can also reach someone who has bad intentions. So how do we tell our congregants what we’re doing without alerting the bad guys?” she asks.

Charlottesville, Pittsburgh…

A rabbi from the New York area who belongs to the Conservative movement but asked not to be named “so that my synagogue doesn’t draw attention,” explains how attitudes regarding security have changed within his community over the past two years.

“In the past, no one in our community seriously thought we needed security at the synagogue,” he says. “Our approach was that this is our home here in America, and we’re not like the Jews in Europe who need armed guards outside of every synagogue. Visitors from Israel would sometimes ask why we have no security, and I explained our approach to them.”

That approach began to change in the summer of 2017, following the far-right demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia. During the demonstration, neo-Nazis marched close to the city’s historic synagogue and yelled anti-Semitic slogans.

“That created a shock within our community,” the rabbi recounts. “It was the beginning of an internal debate over security. We asked the police to place two police cars outside the synagogue during the High Holy Days, and to increase their presence in the area on Saturday mornings.”

A group organized by Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence marches in Pittsburgh, April 28, 2019, six months after the deadly attack on the Tree of Life synagogue.Credit: Gene J. Puskar,AP

The real change, the rabbi adds, came after Pittsburgh last October. “That was the event that ended the internal debate within our congregation,” he says. “After that happened, we realized we needed to take more serious action — including training for the staff, technological solutions and steps to ‘harden’ our building and make it a more difficult target.”

The rabbi estimates that these changes, together with the use of armed security, could eventually cost the congregation “hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Fagin says that funding is a major concern for many of the Jewish communities currently debating different security measures.

“We’re talking about changing the doors and the windows in many buildings, installing cameras, adding fences and, of course, putting armed security guards on site,” he says. “For many communities, the costs are enormously high. The real constraint in our community is not a lack of focus on this issue, but simply the financial capability.”

Fagin adds that this is especially true of smaller communities, and that not only synagogues require protection but also Jewish day schools, yeshivas, Jewish community centers and other Jewish institutions.

Communities are trying to handle these challenges in two parallel tracks: Asking members for specific donations aimed at improving security; and applying for federal and local grants for improving security at houses of worship.

In this file photo taken in October 2012, French policewomen stand outside the Nazareth Synagogue in Paris as security measures are reinforced ahead of the end of Sukkot.Credit: AFP

Ideological concerns

Congress passed legislation in 2005 that allowed houses of worship to apply for federal grants for security — in cases where these houses of worship could prove they are facing a security threat. The grants initially could only be used for “target hardening,” but have recently been amended to also cover the use of armed guards.

Fagin says that a coalition of Jewish, Christian and Muslim organizations are working together to expand the program, and also to encourage action on both the state and local levels.

“This is an enormously important program, and we have a shared interest with Christian and Muslim groups to advance it,” he says. “We’re also seeing a recent trend that state governments are beginning to take this issue much more seriously — and that’s important as well.”

Aside from the financial challenge, many communities are dealing with ideological dilemmas around the use of security.

Asin says that for the Reform movement, the challenge is how to provide security without making some members of the community, such as black Jews, feel less safe.

“Some people can see a police car outside the synagogue and think, ‘I feel much safer now.’ But some people can see the same police car and think the opposite. We have to take that into account when we plan security measures,” she says.

Asin shares the view that security is necessary and unavoidable, but she also tells Haaretz that “it’s unfortunate we spend so much time dealing with this issue. Our movement is growing and enjoying momentum. We have so many wonderful projects all over the country — and yet I’m talking with you now not about any of those things but about security cameras.”

French soldiers patrolling in front of a synagogue in Neuilly-sur-Seine, outside Paris, as part of France's national security alert system Vigipirate, January 21, 2015.Credit: AFP

Rabbi Gibson says that when members of his community raise questions about security, he cites examples from Israel.

“I’ve visited Israel 32 times in my life and I’ve seen how Israelis treat it as an obvious thing that there are security guards at the entrance to every shopping mall. It doesn’t stop people from shopping,” he says. “The simple truth is that if people won’t feel comfortable in our communities, they won’t show up. We can’t allow that to happen.”

Gibson says he’s “convinced” the Jewish community in Pittsburgh will continue to grow stronger, despite last year’s attack. “We’re proud of our city and our community, and we’ll do what we need to do in order to continue Jewish life here.”

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