New York City — An Orthodox synagogue on the Upper West Side announced, and then quickly cancelled, a fundraising event and class on applying for a gun license.
Congregation Ohab Zedek on 95th Street cancelled the event on Monday after it proved to be “very divisive,” according to an email that Ari Weitzner, the synagogue president, sent to the membership.
The fracas comes as synagogues across the country are beefing up security, hiring armed guards, requesting police escorts, and implementing active shooter drills in the wake of deadly synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh last year and in Poway, Calif., this year and reports of increasing attacks on Jews in Brooklyn. Discussions about the best way to keep synagogue-goers safe have collided with a roiling debate about gun sales and ownership in a country where deadly shootings in public spaces have become a recurring story.
The event at Ohab Zedek was billed as a three-day course on “gun safety and security” with tickets priced at $250 and proceeds going toward the synagogue’s capital campaign. The title of the event said it would discuss, “How To Obtain A Gun License in NYC.”
Weitzner tried to separate the decision over the event from any political implications in his email to the synagogue’s membership. “The fact that OZ hosted this course did not mean it supported any position in the gun debate that has engulfed this nation,” Weitzner wrote. “There was no message, implied or explicit. It was simply offering a venue to shul members who were interested, just like if our shul offered classes in martial arts, basketball, or financial planning.” Weitzner declined an interview with The Jewish Week.
“It wasn’t popular and it will divide the community like this article will,” Rabbi Allen Schwartz, rabbi of Ohab Zedek, told The Jewish Week.
Shlomo Bar-Ayal, who has lived on the Upper West Side for more than 25 years and organizes one of the daily morning services at Ohab Zedek, saw no problem with the course taking place at the synagogue. “There are people who feel they would like to get a weapon for self-protection,” said Bar-Ayal, citing a rash of reports of attacks on Jews in Brooklyn. “It’s only a subway ride away.” He noted that Ohab Zedek employs an armed guard in front of the building.
Mark Gelberman, who, along with his wife, has been a member of the synagogue since he moved to New York from Australia in the mid-1980s, was opposed to the event and said the decision to host it at the synagogue was a case of “bad judgment.”
“The first thing I did when I saw the promotional brochure, I sent an email to the rabbi, the president, the executive director, and just said ‘really? We need this nonsense?’ And apparently a lot of other people did the same thing,” said Gelberman. “But there was so much blowback in the shul that obviously wiser heads prevailed.”
Following the shooting deaths of 11 worshippers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018, many synagogues around the country beefed up security by hiring private armed guards or local police. Many synagogues also had to reconsider their policies on allowing individuals to carry weapons in their buildings, and whether armed congregants made their sanctuaries safer or more vulnerable either to accidental shootings or a live-shooter situation.
With the event cancelled on Monday, Weitzner, the president, seemed eager to get back to business.
“I say, we have much bigger fish to fry,” Weitzner wrote, by way of signing off his email to the membership. “And let’s please focus on the capital campaign.”