The way news broke that an armed man had taken a rabbi and congregants hostage at a Texas synagogue Saturday morning highlighted the two major fears haunting U.S. Jewish communal life today: antisemitic violence and COVID-19.
The world learned about the invasion in real time because Temple Beth Israel’s worship was, like most services in the pandemic era, live-streamed across social media to congregants who feared infection and would not attend in person.
After two years of sharp focus on the health threats posed by the pandemic, Saturday’s hostage crisis in Colleyville, central Texas, suddenly pulled the community’s attention away from the virus and toward the older and more familiar danger.
“Jewish communities have been doing a delicate dance between remaining online and opening their doors,” says Avi Mayer, director of public affairs for the American Jewish Committee. “As things have reopened, security has reemerged as a major concern, and the events of the past weekend have illustrated why – in the most painful way possible. I think many of us knew that what happened in Colleyville was only a matter of time,” he adds.
The Colleyville story ultimately played out very differently from the attacks on synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway in 2018 and 2019, respectively, thanks to the live stream on the synagogue’s Facebook page. Pre-COVID, details of the first moments of the invasions were available only when events were carefully reconstructed after the fact by journalists.
The two synagogue attacks – the Pittsburgh mass shooting was the deadliest such attack in U.S. history – were turning points when it came to the issue of security at Jewish worship in America.
It was September 11 that marked the birth of tightened security measures across the Jewish community, according to Rabbi Robert Golub. Even then, says Golub, who served as a congregational rabbi before joining the national Conservative movement as director of Mercaz USA, the focus “was on bomb threats and envelopes of anthrax.”
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Back then, he recounts, there was also the ability to rely on police and federal agencies to detect organized terrorist plots before they happened. Before that, he explains, most U.S. synagogues only thought about security threats over the High Holy Days, if at all.
But beginning in 2016, and especially after the Tree of Life synagogue attack in Pittsburgh, came the realization that the source of the threat had changed.
Fears shifted from organized violence fueled by groups like Al-Qaida or ISIS to lone wolf attackers, fueled by antisemitic content on the internet, whose motives and timing was often impossible to anticipate.
“After Pittsburgh and Poway, people were really shaken by the reality of white nationalism and white power and Nazi symbols that threatened Jewish life. Such hatred for Jews, and murderous intent – the idea that life is cheap and Jewish life is cheaper – began to really stir feelings of a lack of security,” says Rabbi Scott Bolton, a Conservative rabbi who leads Congregation Or Zarua on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
“From politicians to evil actors, it felt like there was increased permission in society to act on their hatred of Jews from both the far right and the far left,” he adds.
Rabbi Sidney Slivko, who served as rabbi at the Congregation Bay Terrace Garden Jewish Center in Bayside, Queens, from 2018-2021, remembers the tense months following Pittsburgh and Poway. His congregation began closely coordinating with local police, who would stop their cars in front of the synagogue at worship times “to reassure the congregation.”
They also hired a private security firm to stand at the synagogue door, “to make sure that the people who came in were people allowed to come in,” and installed a “hot button” behind the pulpit that the rabbi could press in case of emergency.
These were only some of the extensive and expensive measures that Jewish day schools, yeshivas, Jewish community centers and other Jewish institutions invested in at the time, along with cameras and fences, using federal and local grants when possible to subsidize the changes.
Then the coronavirus appeared in 2020, “and COVID and pandemic policymaking took precedence over security measures,” Bolton recounts.
Such a shift might seem logical, given that so much of Jewish life moved online – particularly at first – where security guards and fences were unnecessary.
But those congregations who worked to keep some level of in-person community and spiritual life going found their congregations feeling even more vulnerable, and the logistics of providing security even more complex.
“We’ve had to balance between a move outdoors and the security concerns,” Bolton says. “We’ve had to leave our synagogue doors open during services for cross-ventilation, and hold bat and bar mitzvahs in courtyards next to buildings that we knew had been vandalized with swastikas in the past. While we moved into open spaces, this meant communities had to double down on security measures.”
While moving Jewish weddings and baby-naming ceremonies into Central Park may feel safer from a COVID perspective, new security concerns arose.
At the same time, notes AJC’s Mayer, COVID added fuel to the fire when it came to hatred of Jews.
“While it is certainly true that the pandemic forced much of Jewish life to go online, antisemitism never rests. We saw a definite uptick in antisemitic conspiracy theories related to the pandemic.”
Golub, now retired, does not envy those behind a pulpit in these turbulent times, saying the kind of things Conservative rabbis are dealing with today – from Zoom technology to security issues – are not the things he had to deal with when he was in a pulpit, “and are completely different from anything we learned in rabbinical school.”
From colleagues, he hears it is a tremendous challenge to retain “those peripheral members of the synagogue, who never were truly connected, and now use threats of COVID and security as rationales to cut their ties to the synagogue altogether. They say: ‘I’m not getting anything out of it, both healthwise and security-wise, why should I stick around?’” he reports.
But Bolton doesn’t believe the situation is so bleak, arguing that “we’re experiencing a time of deep investment of security and sustenance of Jewish life.”
He continues: “It’s true that many synagogues are feeling real pressure financially, but getting through this is not an impossible task with good financial management and creativity. People are understanding now, from Pittsburgh to Poway to Colleyville, that what it will take is a community kavvanah to address and solve these problems,” referring to deep spiritual devotion. “We have to work to make sure the resources to keep people safe are there for everyone in small and large synagogues.
Bolton compares the situation for U.S. Jews to one thousands of miles away. “Just as in Israel people defiantly go back on the streets and into cafés after a terrorist attack, our connectivity and determination here have been heightened to make a statement: We will not allow these evil actors to undermine Jewish life in America,” he says.