Keep synagogues safe – from COVID-19 and from terrorism

DIASPORA AFFAIRS: Following 2018’s attack in Pittsburgh, there has been a surge in American Jews being trained to defend their houses of worship

New York police officers stand guard at the door of the Union Temple of Brooklyn, in 2018. (photo credit: KENA BETANCUR/AFP/GETTY IMAGES/JTA)
New York police officers stand guard at the door of the Union Temple of Brooklyn, in 2018.
NEW YORK – When Jeff Cahn enters his Manhattan synagogue, he thinks of the Zion Gate built in 16th century Jerusalem, to keep enemies out.
“When an army tried to invade the city, the design of the gate made it that you can’t just barge right in. You have to turn,” said Cahn, executive director of Romemu, a nondenominational group associated with the Jewish Renewal movement. “To get to the Romemu sanctuary, you have to go into a vestibule and then turn and go down a short hallway. Much like the Israelites, it allows us to delay anybody getting in.”
Romemu, which meets on the Upper West Side, didn’t always have such an intricate entry point. “It used to just be one guard who would check bags at the entrance, and that was it. Our security was mostly just symbolic,” Cahn told The Jerusalem Post.
That changed two years ago following the deadliest attack against Jews on American soil. On October 27, 2018, a virulent antisemite stormed the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, murdering 11 congregants at Shabbat morning services.
Last week marked the two-year anniversary of the massacre, which left the Jewish world reeling and security officials across the country facing an urgent task of improving safety at a time of rising antisemitism in New York and nationwide.
“Jewish communities in North America have already been subject to violent and deadly attacks over the last two years, often by lone actors who provided little warning and spent hours in online spaces steeped in violent antisemitism,” said Mitchell Silber, executive director of Community Security Initiative (CSI) and a former senior NYPD counterterrorism official. “The trends and data that we track suggest that we remain in a heightened threat environment.”
CSI is a new program created in early 2020 as part of UJA and Jewish Community Relations Council of NY’s more than $4 million plan to help secure local Jewish institutions in the New York region.
Last year, New York City and environs, with the largest Jewish population in the US, was the site of several extremist attacks, including at a Jersey City kosher supermarket and in the home of a prominent rabbi in Monsey in December.
The year 2020 brought additional obstacles as fear of the novel coronavirus pandemic rippled into places of worship, changing the way religious groups gather to pray and creating additional cybersecurity issues, as well as physical protection. Conspiracy theories circulated claiming that COVID-19 is a tool to enhance Jewish influence. Jews remain at the top of the FBI’s list of religious groups most frequently targeted for hate crimes according to the annual Hate Crime Statistics Act report.
When The Prospect Heights Shul – a modern Orthodox congregation in Brooklyn – reopened this summer for outdoor services, Rabbi Jonathan Leener confronted a wide array of new security challenges.
“After Pittsburgh, we made it a priority to have armed security at any significant event like Purim or the High Holy Days,” Leener told the Post. Federal Homeland Security grants helped pay for guards and security technology upgrades.
“Now, COVID poses a unique security challenge, as we have started davening [praying] outside in a vacant parking lot,” Leener told the Post.
He said since resuming services, there has been one “unfortunate encounter” from a neighborhood passerby.
“It wasn’t anything threatening, but it was a comment which certainly made me feel uncomfortable. It basically reinforced that we need to have security,” he said. Leener encourages his congregants not to publicly post information about services, but rather to keep the details private in WhatsApp or email groups.
ROMEMU WAS the first synagogue in New York to completely shut down its physical presence in early March before pandemic cases skyrocketed in the city. Like many non-Orthodox congregations, they are still running services entirely online.
“In a practical sense, the target no longer exists,” Cahn said. “We don’t have anybody gathered on a Friday or Saturday, much less 500 people.”
“All of our security concerns at this moment are about online security,” Cahn continued. “We have put into place sophisticated security controls on Zoom and have added certain people to our security watch list. People always say to me ‘it must be cheaper to run an online synagogue,’ but it’s not. The people who would have been setting up chairs and cleaning the sanctuary, we are now paying to moderate Zoom calls.”
Following the Pittsburgh attack, there has been a surge in American Jews being trained by groups like Community Security Service (CSS) on identifying and responding to suspicious activity in order to preempt attacks.
“Since Pittsburgh, we have put more than one thousand community members through our training. We have definitely witnessed a spike in interest, including dozens of synagogues across the country that began after Pittsburgh, and currently have new institutions reaching out to us consistently. Even during the pandemic, there is increased interest from both institutions and volunteers to become more involved and ensure the safest possible environment for their respective communities,” said Evan Bernstein, CEO of CSS, a volunteer safety-training program founded in 2007 by military and law enforcement veterans.
In September, CSS announced an operational partnership with CSI that will synchronize field operations, coordinate deployments of volunteers, share intelligence, and conduct joint training. The collaboration will cover Jewish institutions in New York City, Long Island and Westchester.
“There’s more that we need to take into account now,” Bernstein told the Post, “like the location of outdoor services. Some are closer to the street, some of the minyanim are in front of the synagogue building which makes them even more exposed. These are differences that our teams never had to deal with in the past.”
Looking ahead, Romemu’s Cahn said he is preparing for the security concerns that will come with the end of lockdown. “All of this is very temporary and we expect to be back in the building,” he told the Post.
He said his top priorities to enhance congregational security for 2021 are “screening procedures for people coming into the building, physical hardening of the facility doors and training of staff and congregants on how to respond to emergencies.”
“As Jewish institutions, we are by no means alone in this current climate of being targets for fanatics, extremists and nutcases. Churches have had a lot more attacks. I don’t feel special in any way,” Cahn continued.
“But like a good Jew, I hold that notion in one hand – and in the other hand, as Jews, we need to be especially vigilant. Lest we imagine for one second that we are just like everyone else in terms of the hate directed against us; we cannot let our guard down for one second.”