The threats to our synagogues are even greater, one year after the Pittsburgh massacre

Unfortunately, the risks haven’t diminished – to the contrary, they have increased for synagogues, schools and community centers across the country.

Governor Wolf Joins Pittsburgh in Mourning After Tragic Shooting in the Tree of Life Synagogue (photo credit: FLICKR)
Governor Wolf Joins Pittsburgh in Mourning After Tragic Shooting in the Tree of Life Synagogue
(photo credit: FLICKR)
It’s been nearly a year since the massacre that took place at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, where Jewish souls were slaughtered while praying on Shabbat. We mourned the loss of life in a Poway, CA, synagogue not too long after.
More recently, on Yom Kippur, thousands of miles away in Halle, Germany, a rogue gunman attempted a full-scale assault on Jews praying on the holiest day of our year. Were it not for a literal “miracle” of a door that held firm despite being rifled with gunshots and even withstanding a bomb, dozens of Jews would have been killed or seriously injured.
While these acts of unspeakable terror made global headlines, dozens more acts of violence against the Jewish community take place in the United States every day. As we commemorate the yahrzeits of those killed in Pittsburgh, our hearts have been heavy in a year of concern and introspection as our community grapples with better ways to make our synagogues and communal institutions safer.
Unfortunately, the risks haven’t diminished – to the contrary, they have increased for synagogues, schools and community centers across the country.
As the role of social media in fostering acts of antisemitism continues to grow, the Anti-Defamation League has worked closely with major social media platforms, such as Facebook and YouTube, to mitigate the organization and recruiting capacity that they offer to extremists. Just a few weeks ago, when the Jewish community in Germany was rocked by the Halle attack, the perpetrator livestreamed the event on Amazon’s Twitch service for 35 minutes as approximately 2,200 tuned in to watch. The threats from social media are real, and we need to recognize them.
For nearly 15 years, the Orthodox Union has played a central role in advocating for government resources to secure our synagogues, schools and community centers against the threat of attack. It is the core function of government to secure the safety of all its citizens, and we have advocated on behalf of the entire Jewish community as the threats against our institutions and houses of worship proliferated.
In 2005, the OU and its coalition partners spearheaded the creation of the federal Nonprofit Security Grant Program, administered by the US Department of Homeland Security. This was the first legislation in the country to provide security grants for nonprofits. To date, Congress has allocated $329 million for this critical program, and many of these grants have been awarded to Jewish institutions. We are now advocating to increase the program’s annual funding through 2021 as the needs continue to grow. We are enormously grateful to our elected officials for recognizing the urgent need, and increasing police presence around synagogues during the recent high-holidays.
While the increase in security funding is something to be celebrated, the escalating threats compel ever greater vigilance.
As a community, our collective attention is focused on the resurgence of virulent antisemitism, from both the Left and the Right, and what we can do to minimize or eliminate its causes and effects. However, it is imperative that the Jewish community likewise direct its energy and resources to the immediacy of the threat. Surely, we must do everything in our power to fight antisemitism. But we must also be alert and proactive to protect ourselves in two very practical ways. In tandem, these vital steps can save lives.
We must ensure that our institutions are doing everything possible to secure their premises. This means identifying – with professional guidance – the security needs of our facilities and implementing the resulting recommendations. It also means making certain that the people who frequent our facilities are trained in both operational security procedures and how to respond to an active threat.
If a synagogue, for example, has locked certain doors to control access to the building but congregants continue to prop open doors for convenience, then we have not done what we need to do. If a synagogue has a security code to enter the premises and congregants are giving it out to other people, then we are not doing what is necessary to keep ourselves safe. We cannot continue to delude ourselves into thinking that we may not be a target.
Every Jew has the right to practice their religion without fear of being a victim of terror. An attack on a Jew anywhere is an attack on the very foundation of our civil society. We must be proactive to work with our elected officials to advocate for the proper security funding, but we must also do our part and make sure that our synagogues are taking every security precaution. Only with full cooperation from our elected officials and our community will we be able to remain safe.
The writer is the CEO of the Orthodox Union (OU), the umbrella organization for American Orthodox Jewry with over 400 congregations in its synagogue network. For more information, visit