In Jerusalem’s early morning, when lips barely flutter in that time for silent prayer, when feet are required, in the manner of angels, to come together as if they were not limbs at all, two Arabs entered the Har Nof shul with a gun and meat cleaver, killing four, leaving arms still wrapped in tefillin in puddles of blood. It took seconds. The police arrived in minutes on that late November day.
With the Temple Mount volcanic, with a third intifada percolating, an Orthodox blogger named Carl (“some would even call me ultra-Orthodox”), a corporate lawyer who now lives in Jerusalem, wrote of November’s attack, “I’m seriously thinking of getting a gun license.” Carl added, “I don’t believe anyone in my morning prayer service … has one.”
Jewish fears are airborne, traveling like the clouds. During the Dreyfus trial, Sholom Aleichem half-joked, “When it rains in Paris, open umbrellas in Odessa.”
And then came the attack last month on the Chabad headquarters in Crown Heights, where a 22-year-old Israeli student was stabbed in the head in the sect’s main shul, fueling yet more fear about whether synagogues are still sanctuaries. No, Jews don’t hunt, but what happens when we become the hunted?
In July, the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest rabbinic group in the Modern Orthodox world, published a statement condemning violence and in favor of gun control, citing a similar Orthodox Union policy resolution. Then, in the days after Har Nof, the New York-based Yeshiva World News published a halachic analysis, “Packing (A Gun) In Shul.” Rabbi Yair Hoffman, a popular Orthodox author and educator, wrote, “[Does] the current situation in Israel warrant that a number of well-trained members of shuls and yeshivos should arm themselves with guns at this point? This author believes that there is no question it should.”
A few years ago in the Los Angeles area, a “Children of Holocaust Survivors” group formed “Jews Can Shoot” to teach defensive firearm use. They explained to their members, “The worldwide threat … is real. And, although Jews in he United States have felt a greater sense of security, the rise of anti-Semitism in America is alarming. … If you want to become comfortable and competent with a firearm so that when necessary you can defend yourself, your family and your home, these classes may be for you.” Suddenly the Jewish vocabulary includes Glock, Smith & Wesson, a Ruger Security 6, and Colt double action revolvers such as the Python and Anaconda.
The Washington State-based “Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership” was founded in 1989 to educate “about the historical evils that Jews have suffered when they have been disarmed.”
In northern New Jersey, the Golani Rifle and Pistol Club got going in 2003 in response to the rise in observant Jews owning guns and wanting shooting events (they meet at local ranges around six times a year) that were not on Shabbat, and get-togethers that were kosher (one Golani branch in Philadelphia calls itself “Bagels and Glocks”).
Yali Elkin, 39, of Teaneck, a member of Golani, started thinking about getting a gun in 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. “I was taken by the lawlessness,” he said. In the chaos, over 200 policemen in New Orleans “walked off the job. That crystalized for me how fragile, how delicate was the patina of civilization that we all take for granted,” he said. “If something like that happened where I live, would I be able to protect my home, my family?”
And, of course, said Elkin, he couldn’t help but have his fears reinforced by the shooting of six people, one fatally, in the Seattle Jewish Federation in 2006; the 2009 “foiled bomb plot at the Riverdale Jewish Center [and Riverdale Temple]; the firebombing of [two New Jersey] shuls in Bergen County. It’s impossible to ignore. It’s hard to watch the news,” said Elkin, “and not think this is 1939.” What if someone shows up, not with a knife, as in Crown Heights, but “with an AK-47? It should be obvious that Jews are targets, and the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
Elkin, a corporate attorney, now owns two pistols and a rifle, and learned to shoot at “Gun For Hire,” a range in Woodland Park, N.J. “I would recognize people from shul, ‘Oh, you too!’”
Josh Levy, a member and “public relations officer” for Golani, said the group is about Jewish “fellowship, tzedakah [for Israeli causes], and self-defense.”
“The security and preservation of the Jewish people are very important factors for the Golani gun club,” he said.
The “Golani” name was adopted along the way because, Levy explained, “Jews are aware of the [Israel Defense Force’s] Golani brigade so it was a way to advertise to Jews that we were interested in self-defense.”
Levy points out that what he sees as the rise in gun ownership hasn’t led to a rise in Jewish crime. “You don’t find people flying off the handle,” said Levy. “Jews are among the most cautious and peaceful people, I know of. That makes them perfect gun owners.” Nevertheless, he said, peaceful Jews don’t live in a peaceful world.
Rabbi Dovid Bendory, of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, based in Hartford, Wis., said, the current “self-disarmament” of Jews is a phenomenon of history. From Abraham through the Shoah, Jews used weapons in self-defense. In Warsaw, “a few hundred Jews with tens of firearms held off the German army for weeks.”
Rabbi Bendory said he’s seen an uptick in Jewish gun ownership,
“absolutely. No question. There’s been a surge, every year for the past 10 years, in terms of inquiries about education, training, and gun ownership, individuals expressing a need who hadn’t previously felt it.” He attributes the shift to “the resurgence of anti-Semitism,” increasingly virulent “anti-Zionism,” and “what’s been going on in France [such as the recent invasion of a Jewish house] just the other week.”
Golani’s Levy said he’s heard the discussions and opinions, pro and con, about bringing guns to shul. “We take the position that it’s a good idea for Jews to train themselves in the use of firearms, and to be ready to use them in a sober and prudent way in any situation that requires it. I’m not going to tell you that we have a recommendation for every shul, but we are certainly in favor of Jews being able to respond effectively to deadly attacks.”
“The police are wonderful,” he added, “but police can’t be everywhere at once.”
Rabbi Bendory said he’s being asked “all the time” about guns in shul. “I think in Israel, [yes], there is no question. In Europe, no question. In the United States, it’s a judgment call, depending on circumstance. Shabbos observance makes the discussion a little more subtle. [Rabbis have also relaxed the prohibition against carrying cell phones on Shabbat, for security purposes.] Is there a legitimate chance that this firearm may legitimately be needed to protect life in that shul? In many shuls the answer is yes.” The Department of Homeland Security has allocated up to $75,000 to dozens of synagogues and Jewish institutions across the country, validating the sense of threat.
But, answers Rabbi Bendory, “certainly in many shuls, the answer [to guns] is still no. But once you are in those circumstances where security permissions are necessary, firearms need to be part of the conversation. I say these things with tremendous sadness. Some people call me a [gun] advocate. All I’m advocating is self-reliance and Jewish safety.”