In the face of antisemitism, synagogues strike a difficult balance between safety and openness

In the wake of the antisemitic incident in Colleyville, Texas, there is an increased sense of urgency around security training for the Jewish community

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who was taken hostage last weekend at his Colleyville, Texas synagogue, credits security training with helping save his and his congregants’ lives.

That’s how he knew to “do whatever you can,” as he told The New York Times. That’s why he grabbed a chair and threw it at the armed gunman, enabling him and the other hostages to escape. 

The incident underscored the importance of security training for Jewish houses of worship, as well as how common it already is. Jewish leaders and security experts have been working for decades to provide this type of support to synagogues across the country and help Jews navigate the tension between safety and openness.

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While some American Jews recall security measures at their synagogues as far back as the 1990s — and European Jews date the increase in security to the 1980 bombing of a Paris synagogue — a widespread, concerted push to secure Jewish facilities in the United States began in the early 2000s, said Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America.

Just as 9/11 was a wake-up call to the nation, it forced American Jews to recognize that they, too, might be targeted for an attack, he said. In 2004, the Jewish Federations of North America helped found Secure Community Network, one of the organizations that Rabbi Cytron-Walker received security training from. 

Since the October 2018 Pittsburgh Tree of Life shooting, there has been a “vast acceleration” in security efforts, said Fingerhut, who added that, for the American Jewish community, Oct. 27, 2018, was like another 9/11.

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The recent uptick in antisemitic incidents has only increased that sense of urgency, Fingerhut said, pointing to the 2019 shooting attack on a Jersey City kosher market and, just weeks later, the knife attack at a rabbi’s Hannukah party in Monsey, New York, among other events.

In the wake of these acts of violence, Fingerhut said, “We felt that the pace at which we were building our security network wasn’t fast enough.” 

Coordinating with law enforcement agencies — a form of governmental support that Jews have lacked in many other countries — has been an essential part of securing America’s Jewish community.

“Historically Jews could not always rely on governments to support them,” said Richard Priem, deputy national director of Community Security Service, an organization that, since its 2007 founding, has provided security training to volunteers from the Jewish community who work closely with law enforcement. 

Priem, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, added that he didn’t need to point as far back to the moment that Dutch police pulled his grandparents out of their homes. Recent history is rife with examples of Jews not receiving support of law enforcement.

While “in the U.S. we have a very good relationship with law enforcement … they can’t be everywhere at the same time,” said Priem.

That’s where trained volunteers come in. As members of the community, these volunteers are familiar with its members and rhythms, so they’re more sensitive to when something is amiss, he said.

But when Priem speaks to Jewish communities, he emphasizes that keeping themselves safe doesn’t mean “turning your house of worship into a bunker. ... (We) want to be both secure and inclusive.”  

Fingerhut said that the overarching goal of security measures is to ensure the continuity of Jewish life, which is built around community and communal worship.

The Jewish commandments “aren’t just about prayer and celebration; they’re about giving to each other and caring for each other. You can’t do this alone,” he said. “We need you to participate in community and do so safely.”

Prior to the incident at Colleyville’s Congregation Beth Israel, the Jewish Federations of North America launched LiveSecure – a multi-million dollar campaign to bring increased security measures to Jewish communities throughout all of North America.

“We have no time to spare when it comes to securing the Jewish community,” said Fingerhut in a press release. “This is just the latest, stark example of why Federations are working to expand communal security services to every Jewish community across the nation through our LiveSecure initiative.”

Currently, the federal government’s Nonprofit Security Grant Program provides $180 million for nonprofit organizations, including houses of worship, to improve and upgrade their security. In the wake of last week’s incident in Texas, the Jewish Federations of North America is calling on Congress to double that amount to $360 million.