Debate On Guns In Synagogues Emerges In Wake Of Shul Attack
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Pittsburgh Shul Massacre

Debate On Guns In Synagogues Emerges In Wake Of Shul Attack

Shuls scrambling to re-evaluate security; are armed guards the answer?

The police presence was heavy this week in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh this week. Getty Images
The police presence was heavy this week in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh this week. Getty Images

On the evening of the shooting that left 11 dead last Shabbat morning at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh — believed the largest mass murder of Jews in American history — Rabbi Faith Friedman of Baltimore, Md., posted on her Facebook page: “Prayers are nice … but I have sat now w[ith] my children who have said that they are scared to go to shul next week.”

Rabbi Friedman wrote that she had “done my very best” to assure her five children “that our shul will do everything possible” to keep them safe. “I don’t want more prayers. I want a safer America. I don’t want to explain the extra security Jewish communities are rushing to engage. … I want my kids to [be] excited to go to shul w[ith] me next week.”

From one end of the country to the next, synagogues have begun re-evaluating their security precautions — there have now been at least a dozen fatal shootings at houses of worship in the last six years — and considering the statement made by President Donald Trump within hours of the shooting that, “If they had an armed guard inside, they might have been able to stop him immediately.”

Those comments have sparked a nationwide debate about security a year after the violent white nationalist demonstration in Charlottesville, Va., during which marchers chanted, “Jews will not replace us”; one day after the arrest of a man suspected of mailing pipe bombs to political leaders and outspoken Trump critics — including Jewish billionaire George Soros; and just a week before midterm elections end some political campaigns punctuated with messages of hate.

A makeshift memorial near Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh this week. Getty Iimages

[More coverage on the Pittsburgh shooting here.]

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was among the first to respond to Trump’s suggestion, saying unequivocally: “No, houses of worship do not have to have armed guards to be able to practice their religions. That’s not America.”

That sentiment was echoed by Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, who told CNN: “The Jewish community, and every faith community, is built around having its doors open.”

But Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, told The Jewish Week, “There is the ideal and there is the real. We want to feel we can go and not need protection, but with what is happening today … I cannot recommend what is appropriate for someone else. We are advising congregations to turn to the police and see what precautionary measures they advise.”

Similarly, Rabbi Steven Wernick, chief executive officer of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said in an email that he agreed with Rabbi Schonfeld but added, “Yet we know Jewish institutions and synagogues are at risk. We need to keep our doors open as if there is no worry, and be security conscience as if there were.”

Rabbi Tzemah Yoreh of The City Congregation told the New York Post that although he too wants to be able to allow people to come to the synagogue unimpeded, “people in my community are really scared.”

Michael Masters, national director and CEO of the Secure Community Network, the security arm of national Jewish community organizations, said he is encouraging Jewish synagogues and organizations to review their security plans and situational awareness training.

“This is also an opportunity to remind organizations and synagogues that have not necessarily considered how to approach security of how critical it is to do that,” he said. “What we have heard from individuals that were involved at Tree of Life is that the synagogue had implemented protocols in the last year for just this type of event and that that may have saved lives.”

Police tape seals the perimeter of the Tree of Life synagogue after last Shabbat’s deadly attack. “We need to keep our doors open as if there is no worry, and be security conscience as if there were,” says the head of the Conservative movement’s congregational arm. Getty Images

There are a variety of security training protocols, but Masters said a basic one taught by Homeland Security is “run, hide, fight. Try to hide if you can, and that is what we saw people [in Pittsburgh] did to some degree,” he said.

In the hours after the attack, synagogue leaders from coast-to-coast began reassessing their own security measures. At one of the nation’s largest congregations, the 1,800-family Congregation Beth Yeshurun in Houston, its president, Jerrard Bloome, said security in Texas has been “very controversial” because Texas permits the carrying of concealed weapons. He said the congregation has decided not to permit people to openly carry weapons into the synagogue but to allow those who have a license to carry a concealed weapon — “and hopefully no one will ever know about it.”

“After 9/11 we constructed a perimeter fence around the campus and the gate is manned by an off-duty police officer,” he said. “Another off-duty officer is in the building, and for a bar mitzvah we have multiple security people and other things we don’t disclose.”

At the other end of the spectrum is one of the country’s smallest congregations with just 90-families, Temple B’nai Israel in White Oak, Pa. — about 20 minutes from the Tree of Life synagogue. Its president, Dick Leffel, said his 106-year-old congregation plans to hold a meeting this week with local police to discuss security.

“It is definitely a concern,” he said. “We had not felt a need for it before. It was not something that we thought was a problem. Some people are now talking about locking the door once services started, but what is to prevent someone from coming in before the door is locked?”

People arrive to pay their respects in front of a memorial on October 28, 2018 outside of the Tree of Life synagogue after a shooting there left 11 people dead in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

“I feel an armed policed officer at services would send the wrong message, increase the risk, and accomplish little,” he added. “People are understanding and when and if there is a need for increased security, they will readily contribute.”

Rabbi Arthur Schneier, president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, said at a press conference the evening of the shooting that “it would be very important” for the federal, state and city to distribute grants to houses of worship to provide enhanced security protection.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said government money alone is not the answer and that there are so many Jewish institutions in the U.S. that local police cannot be expected to provide the kind of protection Jewish institutions in Europe enjoy.

“Jewish institutions [here] have to place a greater emphasis on security,” he said. “Day schools should obligate parents to perform one day of guard duty. They know who belongs and would know more than a security guard. … But we can’t hermitically seal the Jewish community. We have to go after the sources — those who encourage increased incitement.”

Barry Sugar, president of the Jewish Leadership Council in Brooklyn, said the city promised in 2015 to have police officers make regular visits to Jewish day schools “to make sure they are safe.” He said the city insists it has fulfilled that commitment but that day schools tell him otherwise.

He said he has also asked the city for permission to allow some trained members to carry guns in the synagogue to “repel” a gunman.

But the ADL does not believe armed security guards are the answer, according to Melanie Robbins, deputy director of its New York-New Jersey regional office.

“We don’t want to get to a situation where synagogues become armed camps,” she said. “We believe close cooperation between our houses of worship and the police department is a critical step in ensuring security.”

She added that the federal Department of Homeland Security offers free security assessments for synagogues and day schools.

Rabbi Gary Moscowitz, a former New York City police officer, said he encourages congregations to train members to handle security “if something goes wrong.”

The scene of a mass hooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood on October 27, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Getty Images

“Someone has to secure the children and do a lockdown if needed,” he said, adding that synagogues can’t depend on one armed security guard to do the job alone.

Jason Friedman, executive director of Community Security Services (CSS), said he has been fielding inquiries from synagogues almost around the clock since the Pittsburgh attack. His all-volunteer organization consists of congregants from more than 75 synagogues who have been trained to be aware of those who might be conducting surveillance of their synagogue, to perform security sweeps of their building before Shabbat services, station themselves in and around the building during services, and lock down the building via remote control if necessary.

Linda Biegel Schulman offered another suggestion to an estimated 2,000 people at a Suffolk County solidarity rally Monday night, one of scores held nationwide since the shooting. She said she has been fighting for “reasonable gun control legislation” since her son, Scott, and 16 other students and staff were killed last February by a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

Schulman noted the school shooter used the same type of AR-15 assault rifle the synagogue gunman used because Congress and the president have done nothing to restrict their sale.

“Living through the Parkland massacre once was more than enough for anyone — let alone a parent — but reliving it again this past Saturday has brought back such a flood of emotions; I cannot even begin to express my outrage,” Schulman said.

Members of the Squirrel Hill community in Pittsburgh come together for a student-organized candle vigil in remembrance of those who died earlier in the day during a shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, Oct. 27, 2018. JTA

“The ballot box is our only means of real power right now,” she said to thunderous applause. “Talk is cheap and we cannot afford any more of our friends and loved ones to be gunned down. … So please, get out and vote to help prevent another mass shooting.”

There was more applause when Rabbi Susie Moscowitz of Temple Beth Torah of Melville, L.I., later called out, “Vote for candidates who want to create safe systems for absorbing and protecting immigrants.”

The alleged synagogue shooter, Robert Bowers, 46, of the Pittsburg suburb of Baldwin, had a plethora of anti-Semitic online postings, including harsh criticism for HIAS, founded 130 years ago as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, that helps refugees of all religions rebuild their lives. In one of his messages, Bowers wrote: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people.”

Next Tuesday’s midterm elections come at a time when the political scene has been engulfed in a wave of anti-Semitic incidents that have spiked in the United States in the last two years. The Anti-Defamation League recorded 1,986 anti-Semitic incidents last year — a whopping 57 percent increase. Among them is an increase in anti-Semitic phone calls targeting several prominent cultural groups and leaders, including California Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Robbins of the ADL said her organization is actively monitoring social media — including fringe web sites — and that it has “seen a continued spike in recruitment activities by various white supremacist and alt-right groups.”

The names of the victims are displayed at a memorial on October 28, 2018 outside the Tree of Life synagogue after a shooting there left 11 people dead in Pittsburgh on October 27. Getty Images

In a statement, the American Jewish World Service praised the work of HIAS and suggested the gunman was “emboldened by the rising anti-Jewish, racist, anti-refugee and transphobic rhetoric from the President of the United States and his supporters. In fact, much of the responsibility for this increasingly hateful environment lies with the president. Just this Friday, President [Donald] Trump declared himself a ‘nationalist,’ denounced ’globalists’ (often a code word for Jews), and called for George Soros … to be ‘locked up.’”

Oren Segal, director of the ADL’s Center of Extremism, pointed out that Soros “has often been the fodder for conspiracy theories and recently there were in at least 11 states flyers that were distributed on college campuses and other places that blamed Jews for the opposition to [Supreme Court Justice Brett] Kavanaugh. These were consistent with the anti-Semitism on well-known neo-Nazi websites, including the Daily Stormer. That is another way that this hatred is spread.”

 

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