Pittsburgh shooting reveals lack of security measures in U.S. synagogues

There are no standard security measures and procedures at all for synagogues and other Jewish community institutions.

October 29, 2018 11:06
3 minute read.
A crew from Chesed Shel Emes Emergency Services and Recovery Unit at the Tree of Life synagogue

A crew from Chesed Shel Emes Emergency Services and Recovery Unit arrive at the Tree of Life synagogue where 11 worshippers were murdered during Saturday's shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh. (photo credit: REUTERS/CATHAL MCNAUGHTON)

The murderous Sabbath rampage of Robert Bowers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Congregation has raised questions about synagogue and Jewish community security across the US and around the Jewish world.

US President Donald Trump picked up on the concern immediately, telling reporters that if there had been an armed guard posted at the synagogue, Bowers could have been stopped immediately.

There are no standard security measures and procedures at all for synagogues and other Jewish community institutions, such as schools and communal centers, across the country, and individual Jewish communities are responsible for organizing their own security measures, or none at all.

The Tree of Life synagogue, currently housing three congregations, has had no security personnel at all until now for a regular Shabbat service, and the entry to the building has been unlocked allowing congregants easy and unfettered access. On weekdays, the door is locked and visitors gain access via an intercom system. That system was deactivated on the Sabbath.

David Friedman, vice president for law enforcement and community security for the Anti-Defamation League, noted the scattershot approach to community security across the country, saying that security measures depended on numerous factors including the location of the community, its size, and the type of institution in question.

He said that while in some synagogues in Washington DC, worshipers gain access through an intercom system opening steel doors, in other communities there is no security whatsoever.

Friedman pointed out that police departments around the country are amenable to security cooperation with local Jewish communities, and that many synagogues request and receive the presence of police personnel on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays.

Police departments also cooperate with community leadership and, Friedman said, building such a relationship is a critical component for overall communal security.

Some synagogues also employ private security companies, although this is a very costly option.

Funding for security guards is not available on the federal or state level, but the Department for Homeland Security does provide a grant to communal institutions of up to $10,000 for security hardware such as security cameras and fencing, said Friedman.

In 2004, the Secure Community Network (SCN) was established by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to provide a more centralized approach to security in the Jewish community.

As such, it helps communities with information sharing, security awareness, training and security consultation. But it is still the responsibility of the community leadership to initiate contact and develop a security framework.

Friedman described the Pittsburgh shooting as “unprecedented in its ferocity,” and said that there would now likely be increased vigilance, at least in the short term, on security measures in Jewish communities around the US.

Wile encouraging synagogues to implement safeguards, remaining vigilant and being consistent in following security procedures was critical, he said.

Unlike in the US, in many countries across Europe, security for Jewish communities is centralized and government funded.

In France, police and army personnel have been providing ongoing daily security patrols for every Jewish institution in the country since the January 2015 terrorist attack targeting a kosher supermarket claimed by al-Qaeda, and the Paris terrorism attacks in November of that year claimed by ISIS.

Synagogues and other community institutions utilize trained communal volunteers to secure the premises of such buildings every day, who also liaise with the police forces on a regular basis.

Twelve French Jews have been killed in extremist or terrorist attacks since 2003.

Jewish communities in the UK also organize trained volunteer security personnel from among their members under the auspices of the Community Security Trust organization.

Volunteers generally secure synagogues for regular Shabbat services while professional security guards are deployed on Jewish holidays.

The British government also provides an annual grant managed by the CST for Jewish community security, which began in 2010 at £2m. but has since risen to £13.4m. per year since 2015 following the attacks against Jewish institutions in Paris and in Copenhagen.

The funds are prioritized for the 200 Jewish schools around the UK, with the remaining money being used for other communal institutions.

The CST is also in constant contact with local police forces around the country and participates in information and data exchange schemes and close-knit cooperation to secure the Jewish community and its various institutions.

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