In the wake of Pittsburgh, houses of worship ask how much security is enough

'I’m tired of being afraid to go to synagogue,' one worshipper posted on Twitter this week.

A Pittsburgh police officer patrols around the Tree of Life Synagogue and a memorial of flowers and Stars of David in Pittsburgh on Oct. 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

(RNS) — The American Jewish Committee is encouraging Jews and “allies” to “flock” to synagogues for Shabbat services this weekend (Nov. 2-3), the first since the murder of 11 congregants at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Or L’Simcha Congregation. The group even has a hashtag advertising the push on social media: #ShowUpForShabbat.

“What could be a more fitting response to the terror in Pittsburgh? We are not afraid. We are not going to think twice about affirming our identity and faith,” said David Harris, AJC’s CEO, in announcing the campaign.

But many Jews are answering the hashtag call by expressing their fears.

“I’m tired of being afraid to go to synagogue,” said one Twitter post this week.

Others are already dreading a new reality that feels anything but normal. “My synagogue has armed guards and ‘hidden’ security,” read another Twitter post. “I got an email today about additional measures. Are we supposed to have our souls nourished in armed encampments?”

With massacres occurring at a frightening pace, houses of worship across the country have been “hardening” against the possibility of the arrival of a gun-toting intruder in the middle of worship, whether weekly or, as in the case of many Orthodox synagogues, daily.

Some have added locks to doors or cut windows in them to provide better visibility. Some have armed their leadership or congregants. Others have sought out one of the proliferating security consultants to advise them on how to at least look prepared to ward off an attack.

Staff or congregants are counseled to stand watch at the entrance can identify strangers or, simply by their presence, may deter would-be assailants who may think, “It’s not as soft a target as I thought, so I’m going to move on,” said Nathan Diament, executive director of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center.

With the Anti-Defamation League reporting a 57 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents last year, many synagogues have been leading the way in being more safety-conscious, even before the shooting at Tree of Life.

“I am certain that in light of recent events everyone is re-evaluating their security, no matter the previous preparations,” said Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Avital Chizhik Goldschmidt, life editor at the Jewish affairs newspaper The Forward, tweeted on the day of the Pittsburgh attack that Manhattan’s Park East Synagogue, where her husband is assistant rabbi, spends more than $1 million annually on security.

“I’m not sure how much that protects us in the face of the weapons that can be legally carried in this country,” she wrote. A synagogue spokesperson wouldn’t comment on the $1 million figure, saying the synagogue doesn’t discuss its security budgets.

“Congregations have been dealing with security threats forever,” said Amy Asin, vice president of strengthening congregations at the Union for Reform Judaism, which represents nearly 900 synagogues. “What is different is that we are now mourning lives lost and communities shattered.”

“In many facilities, their security measures are not apparent to the average person coming in,” said Asin. “Congregations train their staff, leadership and volunteers to work with local law enforcement.”

The Anti-Defamation League is in contact with many Reform and Conservative synagogues to discuss how to deal with threats, and the Secure Community Network, a joint initiative of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, offers information on how to keep congregations safe.

The federal government has also become a resource for funding higher security. In 2005, Diament helped create the Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which has given synagogues and Jewish day schools $269 million in U.S. Department of Homeland Security grants over the past 15 years.

That funding has accelerated with the rise in anti-Semitic attacks, averaging just $20 million a year until 2018, when DHS boosted its grants to $60 million for Jewish institutions to beef up security.

There are important gaps in the government funding, however. Most synagogues can’t afford full-time guards, and DHS grants don’t cover security personnel, according to Chaim Lazaroff, a rabbi and program director of Chabad of Houston. Lazaroff said he keeps in close touch instead with the Houston police.

Improving security can sometimes come at the cost of being welcoming. Synagogues, like all houses of worship, want to have welcoming, open-door policies while also staying safe. “It’s unfortunate that we are here at this crossroads. It shouldn’t be like Europe,” where many synagogues have heavy police presences, Lazaroff said.

Besides the loss of openness is the spiritual cost of arming up. At a panel discussion at the Religion News Association conference in Columbus, Ohio, in September, Dean Feldmeyer, a retired minister in the United Methodist Church, said the notion of an armed pastor risked falling into popular entertainment’s trope of the hero who redeems by being more violent than the villain.

“As a Christian, I find that myth to be untenable,” Feldmeyer told the audience. Violence begets violence, he said, noting that Jesus himself was a “soft target.”

But Jeff Copley, a minister of a Church of Christ congregation in rural Ohio, said he and church elders consider protecting congregants from shooters as a health issue — no different from stopping Legionnaires’ disease growing in the air vents. They decided to offer training on concealed carry.

Armed or not, nearly all faith traditions are now preparing for emergencies they hope will never take place. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which counts 4 million members in nearly 10,000 congregations, has held active-shooter training sessions, said Candice Buchbinder, ELCA’s public relations manager, including a church-safety session last year at the church’s South Carolina Synod and a presentation this year in South Dakota on ALICE, an acronym for “Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate.”

The surge in gun violence has also provoked more congregations to actively support gun control and other anti-violence measures. “We should personally take action and demand that our legislators take action to end the unacceptably high rates of gun violence in our country,” says Asin of the Union for Reform Judaism.

As houses of worship redouble their security efforts this week, some leaders say the real trick will be to keep the push toward safety going as the memory of Pittsburgh fades. Said Lazaroff, the Houston rabbi, “I am more concerned not in the aftermath of an attack, like in Pittsburgh, but in a few months, when everyone becomes complacent again.”

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