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'We're living in a different era': Synagogues renew debate over armed guards and security after Pittsburgh shooting

'We're living in a different era': Synagogues renew debate over armed guards and security after Pittsburgh shooting
Rabbi Eli Wilansky lights a candle after the mass shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27. (Steph Chambers / Associated Press)

To get into Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, visitors must find their way around a brick wall that separates the synagogue from the street, get buzzed through a gate, and avoid setting off suspicion among guards who protect the facility with guns.

In the aftermath of Saturday’s deadly anti-Semitic shooting in Pittsburgh, Jewish congregations around the country are increasing security.

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But at Temple Isaiah, a Reform Judaism congregation on the city’s Westside that counts 900 families as members, the guards have been armed and ready for violence for nearly a year.

“None of us want this,” said Rabbi Dara Frimmer. “But we’re just living in a different era.”

Jewish communities are confronting a renewed question: In a time of anti-Semitism and mass shootings, how does a house of worship balance safety and sacredness? How open or closed should a synagogue be? U.S. Jewish communities have long suffered threats and watched for potential violence, with big-city Jewish centers employing elaborate security measures after decades of vandalism, bomb threats and other attacks.

But the shootings at the Tree of Life congregation, which killed 11 and injured six, have put Jewish temples, schools, community centers and federations on alert like rarely before. They’ve also inspired some temples that have resisted the highest security measures to consider them.

“I’ve been getting calls all day,” said Frimmer, who said congregants have asked “how to go about living as a Jewish person in America.”

Her temple armed its guards after concerns rose over school shootings and a rash of bomb threats against U.S. Jewish centers last year. The liberal congregation, which runs outreach efforts to LGBTQ, Muslim and refugee communities, saw a need to defend itself after realizing it was increasingly attractive to extremists not only because of its faith but because of its programming.

“We can be targeted because we are Jewish and because we represent the part of the America that the extremists hate,” said Frimmer.

Although her synagogue uses guns for protection, security standards around the country vary widely. Many synagogues employ armed guards, metal detectors and other measures to protect congregants, and have increasingly become more protected amid threats of violence in recent years. Nearly all synagogues have police on hand for major holidays such as Rosh Hashanah. Others have unarmed guards other times of the year or, especially in smaller cities, volunteer security or no security at all.

Tree of Life, a Conservative congregation in Pittsburgh’s historically Jewish Squirrel Hill neighborhood, typically had guards for holidays but otherwise was unprotected, according to members who have spoken publicly since Saturday.

“This has resonated in a way that is more chilling than before,” said David Friedman, the Anti-Defamation League's vice president for law enforcement and community security.

FBI agents pass a memorial of flowers on Oct. 28 outside the Tree of Life Synagogue.
FBI agents pass a memorial of flowers on Oct. 28 outside the Tree of Life Synagogue. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP/Getty Images)

Friedman, who advises synagogues nationally on security, said he’s seen a “higher number than ever before” of Jewish communities seeking help to beef up security after the shooting. Another Jewish group that has trained thousands of volunteers protect synagogues, Community Security Service, said it’s been inundated with requests for new training over the weekend.

Even in places where security is already high, Jewish communities have debated whether there should be more.

“I’ve received numerous emails from congregants who think our security needs to be reexamined,” said Rabbi Beth Singer of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, where visitors have for years needed to pass through metal detectors and are watched by guards.

“It strikes me because we are right next to a beautiful [Presbyterian] church that keeps its doors open all day. But we have to keep ourselves locked up,” said Singer, whose congregation includes 2,100 member families. “We worry about the unfounded hatred of Jews and we also worry about the prevalence of heavy-duty arms that are so easily attained today.”

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Security at U.S. synagogues has increased in waves, mostly in reaction to attacks and threats. After a white supremacist fired shots into the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills in August 1999, injuring five, Jewish centers around the country implemented new protective measures. That increased further after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. When tensions have flared between Israelis and Palestinians, synagogues have typically upped security in response to potential threats. Many temples have also increased protection in the last two years amid historically high numbers of anti-Semitic incidents.

Anti-Semitic harassment, threats and vandalism throughout the U.S. jumped 57% last year over the previous year, according to an annual report from the Anti-Defamation League. In 2017, the group counted 1,986 anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. — the second-highest number since the group began tracking them nearly four decades ago.

At Temple Emanu-El of Utica in Upstate New York, Rabbi Peter Schaktman said the Pittsburgh shooting will probably prompt his small congregation — where there are no guards and doors are typically left open for events — to consider whether to formalize security procedures.

“We don’t have a clear policy,” Schaktman said. “It’s intuitive. If there are a lot of kids around for an event, the door is locked. If it’s a funeral, the door is unlocked.”

“This shooting will enhance fear and awareness,” he said. “We don’t want people to be so fearful that they won’t come out and participate in Jewish life. But we also want people to feel and be safe. That balance is a challenge.”

It’s a balance that has largely gone to the wayside in some parts of the world, said Paul Goldenberg, a fellow at the Rutgers University Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience.

“You cannot enter a synagogue in Europe right now in Belgium or in France or in Germany without having to pass barbed wire and military-like troops,” said Goldenberg, the former director of the Secure Communities Network, a national effort that launched in 2004 in partnership with the Jewish Federations of North America to make Jewish centers safer. In Europe, measures have increased in recent years amid threats by right-wing nationalist groups and anti-Semitic attacks that have hit Jewish communities in France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Goldenberg cautioned that too much security could be harmful to religious institutions.

“What we don’t want to happen is that our religious institutions here become places where you can’t gain entry and where they are not welcoming,” he said. “If that happens, everything will change.”

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