Outside a major synagogue in central Queens, a middle-aged man wearing a jacket identifying him as a security guard paced back and forth for a few hours last Saturday morning. The guard was armed. Some of the congregants arriving for Shabbat services nodded at the man; having been on duty a few months, he is a new but already-familiar face.
On Long Island, “quite a few” Chabad centers that are part of the Chabad-Lubavitch chasidic movement’s network have in recent months hired armed guards to protect their premises on Shabbat and during other communal events. And, said a Chabad rabbi, people with gun licenses who attend various Chabad events there have been encouraged to bring their firearms with them.
At a suburban synagogue in northern New Jersey, guards patrolled the perimeter of the building on Shabbat morning. Until a few months ago, there were two such guards. Now, there are more of them, so that at least one is present whenever the building is open. The guards are not armed, but “we’re seriously considering that,” a synagogue officer said.
It has been three months since 11 worshippers were killed on a Shabbat morning at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, an attack that both raised the fear level of many members of the country’s Jewish community and led to new security practices across the country.
Who’s packing? It’s a question an increasing number of Jews are asking these days. At your shul, it could be many people.
A growing number of congregations in this country are no longer “no-carry” zones, and those bearing firearms within their buildings include, according to anecdotal reports, members with gun licenses who bring their guns to shul — even on Shabbat.
While the initial shock of the Oct. 27 attack has diminished, to some degree, a high degree of concern lingers. Several congregations have enrolled their leaders and members in security seminars and webinars. Many of the training sessions (security and special events, but not firearms) have been conducted under the auspices of the 12-year-old Community Security Service organization; to date it has trained more than 4,000 volunteers in the Jewish community, and requests for their services have spiked.
In the New York Jewish community, this is reflected in upgraded security measures and safety evaluations at many synagogues; these include doors that stay locked, more security cameras, more police patrols, more cell phones carried on Shabbat, more professional guards and more volunteer teams of synagogue members who provide security, said David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council.
Firearms are only part of the emerging picture.
“We are preaching about more comprehensive security plans,” Pollock said.
This new emphasis on security presents a special problem for synagogues, which traditionally try to serve as open-door spiritual centers. “You have to balance ‘warm and welcoming’ with ‘safe and secure,’” Pollock said.
Many synagogues in the northern New Jersey area served by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ have established security committees or task forces in the last few months, said Robert Wilson, the Federation’s chief security officer. Some have reduced available parking to clear space for emergency vehicles.
Wilson serves as security consultant for 82 congregations in the federation’s area, commuting distance from New York City.
Since Pittsburgh, more synagogues have established closer relations with local police forces and private security firms, sent officers and members to security training sessions, and invested in often-expensive security measures — frequently including the hiring of armed guards.
The entrances to U.S. synagogues are more and more looking like those in Europe, particularly Western Europe, where, in an atmosphere of ever-present anti-Semitic threats, armed guards search and question anyone trying to gain access.
Though no official statistics are available, the number of U.S. synagogues — including several in the Greater New York area — that have sent congregants for firearms training has “absolutely” increased in the last few months, said Yonatan Stern, an IDF veteran and director of Cherev Gidon (the sword of Gideon), a private security organization that teaches “IDF techniques” to individuals and organizations in the Jewish community.
Stern said representatives of about 15 New York City-area synagogues are enrolled in the current winter session, registration for which closed around the time of the Pittsburgh shooting.
Based on calls he has received since November, Stern said he expects “dozens and dozens” of local synagogues to send members and officers to the training sessions this spring. “The response has been overwhelming. Even rabbis are carrying now,” he said.
All of which flouts what New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said after the Pittsburgh shootings: “Houses of worship do not have to have armed guards to be able to practice their religion — that’s not America.”
At a time when a national debate over gun control rages, many Jewish congregations — including some progressive ones that traditionally had opposed open access to firearms — are putting their members’ safety front and center.
While the Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform and Orthodox movements have supported some form of gun control, the decision about whether to have armed guards outside or armed members in the pews is up to the individual congregations. “In synagogues across the country, policies are less uniform,” JTA reported recently. “Some ban guns from their buildings. Others are OK with their members carrying firearms in the sanctuary, as long as they are concealed.”
Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, an umbrella charedi organization, said, “I can only speak for Agudath Israel, but we have no policy on the matter. I am not aware of any firearms being brought into shuls in our orbit.”
Go to a typical U.S. synagogue, especially one with a healthy budget, and you are likely to see security measures in effect.
Or you may not see them.
“Some of this stuff” done to make synagogues safer “is obvious,” said an officer of the New Jersey congregation. “Some of it is not so obvious.”
Members are not allowed to bring firearms to shul, he said. “Guns don’t operate the way they do on TV.” Accidents happen, targets are missed, innocent people are shot.
Like many of the representatives of congregations in the Greater New York area contacted by The Jewish Week, he, citing security concerns, spoke on condition that neither he nor his synagogue is identified. Many synagogue representatives to whom The Jewish Week reached out declined to comment at all.
A member of the clergy staff at a major Manhattan synagogue said his congregation, which for several years had employed two armed guards, hired another one after Pittsburgh. “All members” of the congregation are now subject to search on Shabbat, he said, adding that several New York synagogues “have reached out to us to ask for guidelines.”
As at the central Queens synagogue, the guards hired through local police departments are usually off-duty or retired officers. Sometimes they don’t show up — which led that congregation to contract through a private firm.
Some of the hired guards work alone; others are accompanied by synagogue members who can point out members seeking access to the building, and also suggest that some people don’t appear to belong in a synagogue.
For some congregations, the cost of hiring a security guard is prohibitive. Others have added a surcharge — from $50 to a few hundred dollars — to members’ annual dues. “No one has complained,” said the rabbi of the central Queens synagogue.
Do people feel safer?
Some do, said a member of that congregation. “A lot of people would love to have armed guards with sub-machine guns.”
The expanded security measures at the central Queens synagogue have already proven their worth.
The newly installed monitoring cameras recently captured the image of a suspicious-looking man loitering around the building. Not a terrorist or possible assailant, he was a thief looking for valuables.
When some property disappeared from a nearby synagogue soon thereafter, the pictures from the security cameras led to the thief’s arrest.
Said the congregation’s rabbi: “The system is working.”