The ‘Tactical Rabbi’ helps synagogues defend against anti-Semitic violence
It was 45 minutes into his lecture when the rabbi pulled out an AR-15.
“Who thinks, by show of hands, that we should be carrying more guns in shul?” Rabbi Raziel Cohen asked the crowd at a Westside Chabad synagogue Wednesday night, during an active-shooter seminar organized in the wake of the deadly attack at Chabad of Poway.
Half the room raised their hands.
In the days since the shooting, Chabad leaders in California have scrambled to secure public safety grants and to calm frightened congregants, mobilizing hundreds more through active-shooter drills and community defense training. In Southern California, religious security experts such as Cohen, who calls himself the “Tactical Rabbi,” are quickly becoming their own cottage industry.
Chabad is a movement of Hasidic Judaism. Unlike other Hasidic communities, which tend to be insular, Chabad views outreach to unaffiliated and less observant Jews as the heart of its theology — a position that sometimes puts it at odds with other Jewish groups.
Los Angeles has more Chabad congregations than anywhere outside Brooklyn. A deadly attack on one of their own just six months after the massacre in Pittsburgh has raised painful questions of identity for a group long animated by outreach. The sect’s embrace of ahavat yisrael — the commandment to love one’s fellow as oneself — is these synagogues’ reason for being.
“Our arms are open, but security always comes first — if some of the openness has to be sacrificed, so be it,” said Rabbi Simcha Backman, who heads Chabad of Glendale and is part of the sect’s California leadership. “In Jewish law, going back to the Torah, first and foremost is protecting lives. Everything else is secondary. And in the world we live in today, we need to focus on saving lives and keeping people safe.”
But safety comes at a price. One large Chabad congregation meets in a building disguised as an empty storefront. Another now questions newcomers at the door.
“We don’t want to be victims,” Cohen said. “We need to protect ourselves now.”
Increasingly, many feel that means bearing arms.
“The benefit of having an individual in the synagogue with a gun is that they’re fighting for something,” Cohen said. “They’re much more willing to defend their kids than a person who is being paid $15 an hour.”
Indeed, men at Wednesday’s event pushed back when the rabbi insisted that only those with advanced training could safely carry a gun in a synagogue.
“If a person in your synagogue is going to carry, I’m great with it, but he has to be trained,” Cohen urged them.
But others in the world of Jewish security were less sanguine about the prospect of so many armed men in a house of worship.
“People are fixated with guns,” said Jason Friedman, executive director of the Community Security Service, which has trained thousands of volunteers, including scores in Los Angeles. “The debate about security has been framed around guns, and I always try to open up that frame.”
One rabbi outright opposed men coming to pray armed.
“The solution is never the gun,” said Rabbi Avraham Zajac, who leads a Chabad congregation in Los Angeles. “The solution is [surveillance] training.”
Until now, training was one of few options available. At an organizational level, Chabad has been keenly attuned to security since its emissaries were killed in the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai. But individually, many congregations still operate on a shoestring.
“There are some buildings out here with an annual quarter-million-dollar security budget,” said Rabbi Yossi Eilfort of Magen Am, a San Diego-based religious security firm. “I grew up with Chabad, and our buildings are mostly not playing in that ballpark, so we need to find other security solutions.”
Grants from the Department of Homeland Security’s Urban Areas Security Initiative have helped bridge the gap, funding “target hardening” infrastructure such as fencing, alarms and surveillance cameras. But until last month, the grants could not be used to pay for armed guards.
“It’s very important and welcome,” Backman, the Glendale rabbi, said of the change. “But even if those grants don’t come through — and they don’t always come through — we all know that we need to find the money for those security upgrades.”
After the shooting in Poway, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a huge injection of cash for the state’s Nonprofit Security Grant Program, increasing the fund by about half a million dollars, to $15 million.
But many of the more inventive defenses don’t cost a thing.
One Los Angeles synagogue sits behind a bare storefront with papered windows on a blighted stretch of a bustling boulevard. Nothing about the facade suggests it is a house of worship, much less a Jewish one. Although its insides are often crammed to bursting, from the outside, the building looks abandoned.
“There’s no signage on purpose, for security reasons,” the rabbi said. “I don’t want attention. I would rather be invisible now.”
The synagogue recently hired an armed guard, but the rabbi sees this mainly as a deterrent. His true faith lies with fellow members of the community, dozens of whom have trained with Community Security Service.
“We have 36 volunteers — both men and women — who come every week,” the rabbi said. “They’re very vigilant, they’re very aware. They have a very sophisticated communication with each other and the LAPD.”
A typical Shabbat at this synagogue will see a mother in a skirt suit and bobbed wig standing guard with an earpiece and a walkie-talkie at her hip. Such electronics are forbidden to touch, much less use, on the Sabbath. But the commandment to protect lives in danger supersedes virtually every other rule of Jewish law.
Community Security Service declined to provide specifics, citing safety concerns. But Friedman, the firm’s executive director, said that in neighborhoods like Pico-Robertson, where there are scores of synagogues, its teams communicate not only among themselves, but with one another.
“Being of the community, we have to be cognizant and sensitive of the restrictions,” he said. “There’s no point of being a Jewish organization if we’re not.”
Now, in addition to Community Security Service, the rabbi of the hidden synagogue has committed to send two of his flock to Magen Am, known for its elite training program for civilians.
“It’s like a neighborhood watch versus joining the Marines,” the rabbi said of the new program. “It demands almost a thousand hours of training.”
The men and women at Wednesday’s training were confident they could square this new reality with their most deeply held beliefs.
“Obviously there’s going to be more security in shul, but Chabad is always going to stay the same,” said Cohen’s sister, Sarah Inglis, who attended the event with her husband. “Being open and inviting, that’s the basis of what Chabad is.”
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