Danger at the synagogue: The story of a shooting tragedy that could have been much worse
“As Jews, we have always found solace and comfort in strengthening ourselves as a community,” said Rabbi Avremi Zippel. “We don’t run. We don’t cower in fear.”
SALT LAKE CITY — In the small town of Halle, Germany, on Oct. 9, a gunman tried to attack a synagogue on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. He failed.
It would be the third synagogue attack in the past year — following the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history at Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue, and a shooting at a California synagogue, Chabad of Poway, that left one woman dead and three injured.
But that day in Halle turned out differently. The gunman tried to push open the synagogue doors. He tried shooting off the lock. He even lit an explosive device and stuck it in the door jam.
But he couldn’t get in. All 51 congregants remained unharmed. Frustrated at his foiled plan, the shooter killed two people nearby.
In response to a sharp rise in anti-Semitic attacks, synagogues around the world have taken precautions to protect themselves. The synagogue in Halle was one of them.
In 2015, they received a grant from the Jewish Agency for Israel’s security assistance fund, a project which paid out more than $11 million to Jewish communities in more than 48 countries.
“We upgraded and donated the entire security equipment for the community in Halle,” Isaac Herzog, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, told The Guardian. “That donation saved lives.”
The past year has seen a spate of attacks on houses of worship: in March, Muslims were gunned down while praying at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, and Christians were targeted during Easter services at churches in Sri Lanka on April 21.
Communities of faith across the world are being forced to fortify themselves. But such vigilance could come with a cost. In protecting themselves against attackers, will they sacrifice the open, welcoming nature of religious institutions?
Ramping up synagogue security
In addition to having a locked door heavy enough to withstand gunfire, the Halle synagogue had also provided active shooter trainings for their congregants.
The Halle synagogue is an important model for other communities developing their own emergency preparedness plans, according to the Secure Community Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring the safety of Jewish institutions.
“We know that there are simple steps that every Jewish institution can take to improve their safety and security,” Michael Masters, CEO of the Secure Community Network, said in a statement. “Whether in Europe or the United States, every synagogue can learn from the attack in Germany to improve the safety and security of their congregation — and our Jewish community.”
Synagogues across the world have been equipping their buildings with alarms, locks, reinforced walls and windows. Some have built bullet-proof fences, installed metal detectors and camera surveillance systems, and required all entrants to undergo pat-downs and background checks. It is common to see armed private security guards or off-duty police officers manning the doors of synagogues, or hovering in police cars in the parking lot.
In Utah, synagogues have followed suit.
“This year, we really ramped up security in the wake of what happened in Pittsburgh,” Rabbi Sam Spector of Congregation Kol Ami, Utah’s largest synagogue, told the Deseret News.
Shortly after the Pittsburgh attack, the synagogue hosted an active shooter training for the entire congregation. This year at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, they didn’t allow anyone in the building without a ticket and took measures to ensure tickets couldn’t be falsified, hired police officers to stand guard outside, required ushers to undergo active shooter training, and had experts assess the most vulnerable parts of their building to ensure those spots were watched at all times.
Such measures come with a cost: off-duty police officers can charge as much as $25-50 per hour in Salt Lake City, said Rabbi Spector. Last year, Congregation Kol Ami added a $60 security fee to annual member dues, but even with those additional funds, security still costs the synagogue thousands of dollars per year, a significant amount in its challenging financial position, he said.
“The fact that the synagogue in Halle was not protected by the police on a holiday like Yom Kippur is scandalous.” — Josef Schuster
But these measures can only do so much.
Despite all the Halle synagogue did to protect itself, the event still ended in tragedy. The synagogue had requested police guards from the state, but the German government turned it down. It took 10 minutes for police to arrive. Meanwhile, frustrated that he couldn’t enter the synagogue, the gunman went on a rampage through surrounding streets, killing two people.
“The fact that the synagogue in Halle was not protected by the police on a holiday like Yom Kippur is scandalous,” said Josef Schuster, president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews in a statement.
‘We will put up a fight’
The cost of such vigilance is more than just financial. It can also come at another kind of cost — the sacrifice of the welcoming nature of Jewish institutions. As houses of worship — synagogues, churches, mosques — increasingly find themselves under attack, will their efforts to protect themselves ultimately make them less inclusive spaces?
“It’s hard for us as a congregation to turn people away at the door. I didn’t become a rabbi to say you can’t come into my synagogue to pray.” — Rabbi Sam Spector
“It’s hard for us as a congregation to turn people away at the door,” said Rabbi Spector. “I didn’t become a rabbi to say you can’t come into my synagogue to pray.”
But Rabbi Spector says he is guided by the fundamental Jewish principle of pikuach nefesh, or saving a life.
“From a Jewish standpoint, saving a life overrides everything else,” he said. “At this time of rising anti-Semitism, we must put security measures first.”
Chloe Laverson, a junior at the University of Utah, knows what it’s like for a Jewish community to experience such a tragedy.
Laverson grew up in California and attended the Chabad of Poway, a synagogue attacked earlier this year. Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, who was injured in the attack, presided over her baby naming ceremony. Her dad, a physician, was on call in the ER when Rabbi Goldstein came into the hospital with a gunshot wound. Her family was close to Lori Gilbert Kaye, 60, who died trying to save the rabbi, and attended Kaye’s funeral.
Laverson, now 20, has a visceral understanding of why it’s vital for Jewish communities to take steps to protect themselves from such attacks.
“It’s amazing that all these police officers partner with religious groups to protect us. But I wish that they didn’t need to be there in the first place.” —Chloe Laverson
“I work at Hebrew school, and there’s two cops there at all times, and there’s always a police car parked in the front,” she said. “It’s really comforting, but it’s also upsetting. Because, why should that have to be there? It’s amazing that all these police officers partner with religious groups to protect us. But I wish that they didn’t need to be there in the first place.”
Laverson says she hasn’t let her fears get in the way of her commitment to living an active Jewish life. She is a Jewish leader at the University of Utah’s Hillel chapter (Hillel is the largest college campus Jewish organization in the world) and works as a freelance writer for Jewish publications.
“As anti-Semitism is on the rise in the United States it’s so important for Jews to continue to stand together,” she said. “Because we are a really strong community. And we will put up a fight.”
Rabbi Avremi Zippel, program director of the Chabad Lubavitch of Utah, agreed.
“As Jews, we have always found solace and comfort in strengthening ourselves as a community,” said Rabbi Zippel. “We don’t run. We don’t cower in fear. We take the necessary steps to protect ourselves and our families, and we keep going to synagogue and doing the very things that our brothers and sisters across the world lost their lives for.”
Rabbi Zippel said the way in which he heard the tragic news about the Yom Kippur shooting in Germany unexpectedly filled him with hope.
He heard the news from two Jewish men who walked into the Chabad Lubavitch of Utah to pray on Yom Kippur. When they saw the rabbi, they told him the news.
Rabbi Zippel realized, in a sudden flash of hope, what these two men had done.
They had heard about an attack on a synagogue on Yom Kippur, and what was the very next thing they did?
They didn’t run away in fear. They didn’t stay at home and hide.
Instead, they walked straight through the synagogue doors, past the armed guard, and into the sanctuary on the most holy day of the year, and began to pray — their voices joining, strengthening, rising up together in a mournful melody.