US synagogues reassess security in wake of Colleyville hostage taking

DIASPORA AFFAIRS: While that attack ended without any of the congregants being harmed, synagogues and Jewish communities across the United States are once again on heightened alert.

 RABBI CHARLIE Cytron-Walker talks to reporters outside of Whites Chapel United Methodist Church following a special service on Monday in Southlake, Texas. (photo credit: Emil Lippe/Getty Images)
RABBI CHARLIE Cytron-Walker talks to reporters outside of Whites Chapel United Methodist Church following a special service on Monday in Southlake, Texas.
(photo credit: Emil Lippe/Getty Images)

NEW YORK – After last week’s horrific hostage-taking situation at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, the issue of synagogue security is once again at the forefront in US Jewish communities.

While that attack ended without any of the congregants being harmed, synagogues and Jewish communities across the United States are once again on heightened alert and stepping up security.

The incident Saturday that targeted Jewish worshipers serves as the latest reminder for Jewish congregations and organizations to be vigilant, further fueling a sense of urgency to increase security measures and have difficult discussions about how to remain safe.

“I did not become a rabbi to become an expert in security,” said Rabbi Joshua Stanton, who leads the Reform congregation East End Temple in Manhattan. “All of us are still in shock and processing the trauma. It’s hard to believe that yet again Jews were targeted for being Jews and made to feel unsafe in our sanctuaries.

“They’re called sanctuaries for a reason. We’re supposed to be able to feel a sense of calm and connection. The idea that not only do we need to go through security to get there, to have our bags checked, but now we know that still might not be enough – it’s painful,” he continued. “This is a horrific reality for the American-Jewish community, and it didn’t used to be this way.”

 Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, where four hostages were held. (credit: JTA) Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, where four hostages were held. (credit: JTA)

As the situation unfolded in Texas, Stanton recalled, a colleague at CNN reached out to him. “I spoke on the network for about 25 minutes as this was going on,” he said. “They wanted to make sure they weren’t just talking in security terms but to really include a Jewish voice and insight into the horrific event happening to the Jewish community. So, I got on right away and did my best to channel the grief so many of my colleagues were feeling.

“It’s just awful that we have to spend so much time protecting ourselves for the day-to-day function of the community as opposed to focusing on the holy work of the community.”

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, the man at the center of the Colleyville synagogue hostage crisis last weekend, said on Wednesday that Beth Israel is still struggling to figure out how to heal.

“We’re really trying to figure out what we need to do,” he told JTA. “We’ve got repairs to make to the congregation, and we’re making arrangements so that we can have services this weekend.”

He’s also encouraging his congregants to seek out therapy if they need it.

Congregation Beth Israel was the latest in a string of US Jewish institutions that have been violently targeted in recent years.

In October 2018, a gunman murdered 11 worshipers at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh.

In April 2019, an attacker shot one congregant to death at the Chabad of Poway in Poway, California.

In December 2019 an assailant killed one and wounded four at a Hanukkah celebration at a rabbi’s home in Monsey, New York. The attacker initially tried to break into a synagogue next door.

Also in December 2019, two shooters killed three people in an attack on a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, New Jersey. According to police, they were motivated by antisemitism, and they may have been targeting a nearby Jewish day school.

US Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said this week that the Colleyville hostage-taking events “make clear how important it is that we protect houses of worship across our country.

“We can provide protection to many more houses of worship through a significant increase in funding for the Department of Homeland Security’s [DHS’s] Nonprofit Security Grant Program,” he tweeted.

The NSGP allows houses of worship and other nonprofits at risk to apply for grants of up to $100,000 each. The money can be used for security measures such as fences, cameras, stronger doors and the hiring of personnel.

In recent years, the program’s budget was increased several times due to the rise in antisemitism across the US. In 2019, Congress approved an increase in the security grants by 50% from $60m. to $90m. After the antisemitic attack in Monsey, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he would promote a move to quadruple the NSGP from $90m. to $360m. a year.

So far, Congress has doubled the budget of the NSGP from $90m. to $180m. Several Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Federations of North America and the Secure Community Network, said this funding level was insufficient in light of the high level of threat against Jewish institutions. For some organizations, increasing the funding is a top priority for the 2022 legislative agenda.

“In fiscal year 2021, we provided $180 million to support physical security enhancements through the grant program – double the amount from fiscal year 2020 – but not nearly enough to meet the demand,” Mayorkas tweeted. “We must dedicate more funding to this vital effort.

“The DHS will work with Congress on this so that our faith-based communities have the tools to upgrade their security and protect themselves again terrorism, hate crimes and targeted violence,” Mayorkas continued. “Increasing funding for the DHS Nonprofit Security Grant Program is a foundational step to reinforce and fortify pillars of our community, places that should always remain houses of worship, prayer and gathering in peace.”

PROVIDING MORE security for synagogues may be a consensus issue, but within the Jewish community, the issue of whether laypeople in synagogues should be trained and armed is a controversial one.

Stanton called East End Temple’s security protocol “extensive,” consisting of armed NYPD officers and private guards. While security is slated to increase following the Colleyville incident, Stanton noted he is against arming congregants, a move increasingly common in some Orthodox synagogues.

“Research indicates that people without training who have guns probably create greater hazards than benefits,” he said.

In Brooklyn, Rabbi Kenneth Auman, leader of Young Israel Flatbush, echoed disapproval of armed laypeople.

“In the hands of an untrained person, a gun could cause more harm than good,” he said. “As far as I know, our volunteers do not carry arms. But if someone had a license for one, I wouldn’t stop them.”

Auman noted that unarmed volunteer congregants are an important part of the Orthodox congregation’s security protocol.

“We have an armed guard at the door, which we started a few weeks ago, even before [Colleyville]. There wasn’t a specific incident that made us start doing this other than just that these are difficult times. A security guard has advantages but also disadvantages because they don’t really know the regulars in the congregation the way our people do.”

Auman said that because of the coronavirus pandemic, volunteer numbers have dropped.

“We used to rely entirely on volunteers, giving people shifts to stand at the door and not letting everyone in,” he recalled.

He added that it’s unclear whether volunteer inquiries at his congregation will increase in the wake of the Colleyville situation. “Don’t forget that this happened on Shabbat; no one saw their phones until after the fact, so none of us felt anything much about it. I haven’t heard many comments about it at all.”

Evan Bernstein, national director and CEO of Community Security Service, a Jewish volunteer security nonprofit, said the organization typically sees an uptick in interest following major antisemitic incidents like Colleyville.

“As an organization, we are in the midst of preparing for that trend to continue,” Bernstein said. “After Colleyville, we have experienced an uptick in interest and sign-ups [in] our various programs from a wide range of Jewish communities across the country. This is our ultimate goal – to empower the Jewish community to take part in the protection of their own institutions.

“While we are relieved that the hostage crisis in Colleyville ended without any harm to congregants, the high level of vulnerability of Jewish communities – including across the New York City metro area – remains high.

“This is another wakeup call to the Jewish community that security remains paramount and that antisemitism poses a threat. The American Jewish community must adopt the mentality – much like our counterparts in Jewish communities across the world – that security is everyone’s responsibility.

“We remain in close contact with our partners and our trained volunteer security network to ensure the highest levels of security to mitigate incidents and prevent attacks from happening,” he continued.

In a letter sent to congregants immediately after the Colleyville hostage situation, Ron Susel, director of security at Park East Synagogue, a Modern Orthodox congregation in Manhattan, wrote: “We are closely monitoring for any new developments and are in direct contact with the NYPD 19th Precinct and Counterterrorism Bureau.

“Here is how you can help: Please make sure that you follow security protocols, fully cooperate with the instructions of our security agents and carry a government-issued ID when entering the building.

“Our agents have been instructed to be on higher alert; therefore, we would appreciate your cooperation and understanding if you are questioned or slightly delayed upon your arrival.

“Most importantly, if you notice unusual activity, or come across alarming information, please alert our agents or a staff member immediately.”

In the instant aftermath of the Colleyville ordeal, Jewish community protection groups in New York also said they were on heightened alert.

The Shomrim protection group in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Borough Park, Williamsburg and Flatbush said it was increasing patrols in the neighborhood and at local synagogues.

New York Mayor Eric Adams said, “Out of an abundance of caution, the NYPD has deployed additional resources to key Jewish locations around the city tonight.”

New York City Councilwoman Inna Vernikov, who is Jewish, said, “I want to assure my constituents that I have spoken with NYPD and they have increased patrols outside of Brooklyn synagogues.”

Omri Nahmias contributed to this report from Washington.