A majority of New York City Council members have written to Mayor Bill de Blasio asking him to include funding in next year’s budget to provide security for each of the city’s houses of worship following six months of attacks on synagogues, churches and mosques worldwide that have killed more than 250 worshippers.
“We must be proactive about ensuring the safety of New Yorkers of faith,” they wrote. “Traditionally, houses of worship have been safe havens, sanctuaries and welcoming to all. With proper, long-term security, religious New Yorkers could once again kneel in prayer without looking over their shoulders in fear.”
The letter, which was signed by 39 of the council’s 50 members, was sent to the mayor last week. In the meantime, Councilman Kalman Yeger (D-Borough Park) has drawn up a bill that would require the city to reimburse all houses of worship for the cost of hiring a security guard — armed or unarmed — “at all times that the institution is in operation.”
The letter was sent following an interfaith unity rally on the steps of City Hall that called for the city to fund security at all houses of worship in the wake of shootings and bombings in Sri Lanka, New Zealand, Pittsburgh and Poway, Calif.
At the rally, Eric Goldstein, CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, said: “There are few needs more urgent and self-evident than the need to protect our houses of worship. We need to come together in recognizing that this is not a Jewish issue, this is not a Muslim issue, and this is not a Christian issue. This unites each and every one of us, and unless we come together, we will not be able to combat the hatred that has led to the current situation.”
These actions come as synagogues and private Jewish schools throughout the country are hiring off-duty law enforcement officers and other security guards, according to Michael Masters, national director and CEO of the Security Community Network, the American Jewish community’s response to heightened security concerns in the U.S. He said that in states where it is legal to carry weapons, congregants “who have permission from the rabbi” carry guns with them to services.
Rabbi Mendy Deitsch, director of Chabad of the East Valley in Chandler, Ariz., said his 350-family congregation in suburban Phoenix has increased security since the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh six months ago killed 11 congregants.
“We’ve had security here during the High Holidays for the last 10 years,” he said. “Now, we have it every week. Arizona is a right-to-carry state and a lot of our members come carrying weapons that are both concealed and open. This is an accepted norm for Arizona. I don’t encourage it. If I did, it would imply that I think an attack is imminent, and I don’t. But if someone is carrying, they have to let the security team know who they are in case of an emergency.”
Rabbi Deitsch said one member of the security team owns an Israeli-made automatic weapon that he “keeps in his car” during services.
“He doesn’t walk around with it,” said the rabbi. “We try to create a healthy balance. We want [a potential] perpetrator to know we are a hard target to get into, and yet we want people here to know they are safe and not feel threatened or afraid to come.”
Yeger’s bill, which is now awaiting a hearing, calls for the New York City Police Department to provide a security assessment for every house of worship within 14 days of a request. It would permit the hiring of off-duty city police officers who have formed the NYPD Paid Detail Unit. Although off-duty, they still wear their uniform and carry their gun and other equipment, including their police radio.
David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, said his office recommends the hiring of off-duty officers as “one of the optimal solutions. … There is no better deterrent than a city cop. He has the experience, judgment and training.”
He said the “greatest risk” of an attack at a synagogue is during Shabbat morning and holiday services. The cost of providing a security guard at such services would be $12,500 annually for each synagogue.
A spokesman for the mayor, Jose Bayona, said in a statement, “People should feel safe when exercising their religious freedoms, which is why the NYPD has close partnerships with houses of worship to create a safe atmosphere for New Yorkers. We will review the City Council’s legislation and budget proposal.”
The city police department’s crime prevention team already offers security assessments to houses of worship, and its counterterrorism unit provides them with security briefings. In addition, in recent months it has increased patrols and its presence at other key locations.
Councilman Chaim Deutsch (D-Brighton Beach), a co-sponsor of the bill and the author of the letter to the mayor, told The Jewish Week: “You shouldn’t have to legislate how people should be protected. The leadership of the city needs to tackle this issue.”
A less expensive alternative to hiring guards, Deutsch said, would be to recruit and train a new class of volunteer city police auxiliary officers.
“They get no pay and the only expense to the police department is an allowance for clothing and equipment, which is $425 a year, plus $500 for a vest,” he said. “If something happens, they would be permitted to use their police radio [to request police assistance]. I have spoken with the police department about it and they are supposed to get back to me.”
Pollock said he liked the idea because they “wear NYPD uniforms and have the ability to summon backup immediately.” He said he is also speaking to synagogues in Westchester and Long Island about the need to have security assessments of their buildings and to have the proper equipment, policies, procedures and security training.
“We are trying to guide people into making the most educated decisions possible,” he said.
In Suffolk County, legislator Susan Berland said County Executive Steve Bellone is “looking into providing a grant writing workshop” to help houses of worship apply for federal and state security grants. And Bellone said in a press release that the county police department would be providing outreach to houses of worship for them to participate in Safety and Sanctuary training, along with an online version of the training to reach a greater number of institutions. Since 2017, the department has conducted more than 233 active shooter training sessions at schools, offices and houses of worship.
In Westchester, virtually every municipality has its own police department. Kieran O’Leary, public information officer for the Westchester County Police, which supplements the municipal departments and also covers the parkways, said the county police also has a detective assigned to the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force to provide “real time information about threats to houses of worship” that would be immediately shared.
In Nassau, a county spokeswoman said the county police have enhanced security at all houses of worship and tripled the size of the department’s Homeland Security unit in the last year.