Arming synagogues? Jewish leaders grapple with balancing safety and accessibility

“The last thing we would want is that people should not feel safe and not feel comfortable to come to a synagogue,” said Rabbi Moshe Bleich.

By Jackson Richman, JNS

In the aftermath of two synagogue shootings exactly six months apart, in addition to arson incidents at Chabad Houses in Massachusetts and an attempted arson at a Chicago synagogue last month, the issue of security, specifically armed personnel, has been in the spotlight. Some have called for supporting the idea, while others, especially those who favor strict gun control, have expressed their opposition to the idea.

Three arson incidents occurred in Massachusetts within a week during the month of May. Two occurred at the Chabad Center for Jewish Life of Arlington, while another happened at the Chabad Jewish Center in Needham. State and federal law enforcement are investigating these incidents.

Rabbi Mendy Krinsky directs the Needham location with his wife, Chanie, who smelled a fire that broke out outside their home, which the rabbi extinguished “before the smoke alarms even went off,” according to the wife in a Facebook post.

“Jewish community centers throughout the United States have been addressing the evolving nature of the threats against them for many years,” the rabbi told JNS. “When an attack does occur, it’s a time to re-evaluate and continue to enhance security measures.

“We’ve been working closely with security experts and law enforcement, as we had been doing before this took place,” he continued. “We are grateful to law enforcement for their continued partnership in ensuring our safety, and we are taking independent security measures as well.”

Krinsky declined to say what specific security protocols his family has taken since the arson, although he did mention that they haven’t received any threats since and have gotten an “outpouring of support from the community.”

Rabbi Moshe Bleich, who runs the Chabad on-campus center for students at nearby Wellesley College and Babson College in Massachusetts, told JNS that there are different approaches to security among the many Chabad Houses around the world.

He declined to specify what precautions he and his wife, Geni, have been taking, but noted that all Chabad synagogues and centers are taking new measures – not just because of the recent fire, but in the aftermath of the April 27 shooting at Chabad of Poway in Southern California, which resulted in the death of one woman and injuries to others, including the senior rabbi there.

Chabad emissaries in the state have undergone a Civilian Response to Active Shooter Event (CRASE) training, according to Bleich. It is a course that was created by the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training organization (ALERRT) in 2004, five years after the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, where 15 people, including the two perpetrators, were shot and killed.

According to ALERRT’s website, “topics include the history and prevalence of active shooter events, civilian response options, medical issues, and considerations for conducting drills.”

The program is offered through local law enforcement and is funded “through several state and federal entities,” according to ALERRT.

Bleich said he plans to go through the program soon.

“We pride ourselves as being a home for every Jew – a welcoming environment for everybody,” he said. “We’re not looking to scare anybody off. The last thing we would want is that people should not feel safe and not feel comfortable to come to a synagogue.

“On the other hand,” he continued, “we need to make sure that everybody will feel safe and feel comfortable going to a synagogue.”

Krinsky echoed that sentiment: “My message to all rabbis is that security and a warm, welcoming environment are not mutually exclusive. People are more comfortable and at ease in what they feel is a safe space. While ensuring that our places of gathering and worship are safe and secure, let’s keep our focus on what our added value really is: inspiring and uplifting people, and bringing more light into the world.”

‘All about risk appetite’

Bob Kinder, who served six years in the U.S. Armed Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is currently the president and CEO of the safety and security consulting firm Talon Solutions, which has contracted with synagogues to provide armed security, told JNS that “if you do not have an operational arm that can interdict very rapidly, then the best surveillance systems in the world won’t do you any good if your objective is to prevent an attack.

“Surveillance systems and hardening a synagogue or a JCC or another Jewish institution is absolutely critical just to keep out would-be assailants,” he continued. “But unless you have somebody who can rapidly react to that adversary, you’ll find it’s just too late.”

He cited the April 27 synagogue shooting at Chabad of Poway and the October 27 shooting at the Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha Synagogue in Pittsburgh as examples of what can happen when there is no armed guard to stop an assailant.

Kinder, who is not Jewish, instructs institutions such as synagogues and Jewish community centers to “make it more difficult for an assailant to injure your congregation or your children.”

“Most of these people, quite frankly, are cowards that are attacking, and they will bypass something that they consider to be a hardened target,” he said.

Kinder experienced the mass shooting at the U.S. military base in Fort Brag, N.C. in 1995 when a sniper killed one person and wounded 20 others.

Speaking from that experience, he said that “the best method of deterring that active shooter is somebody else with a firearm.”

Recently, Elan Carr, the U.S. Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism, said that synagogues and Jewish institutions should consider having armed guards.

“We live in a time of danger,” Carr told Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief Yaakov Katz in an interview at the Global Coalition 4 Israel Conference. “Any synagogue, every JCC should have guards. God willing, may they never be needed, but they should be there.”

Organizations such as the Orthodox Union and the Jewish Policy Center have encouraged Jewish institutions, especially synagogues, to have armed personnel.

“The OU advocates for resources [in the form of federal and state grants] to support security measures, including guards, at synagogues, school, and other Jewish institutions,” said Nathan Diament, executive director of the group’s advocacy center. “The OU supports each institution making its own determination as to which security measures suit its specific needs best,” he noted.

“The [Jewish Policy Center] strongly supports armed security at Jewish institutions, especially, but not only, at synagogues,” said senior director Shoshana Bryen. “We also support uniformed police.”

‘A logical, nonpartisan issue’

Kinder cited a Reform synagogue in Brookline, Mass. where congregants were hesitant to have someone with a gun protecting the place. He was asked to provide security for an interfaith event and, after accepting their offer, was asked if “he would feel comfortable being unarmed.”

“My response was, ‘I’m a professional. These are my credentials. If your purpose is deterrence and to secure the people inside, you are better off with me being armed and able to respond,’” he said.

Ultimately, Kinder was armed. After the event, he received an email informing him that the congregation requested him back.

“It’s the internal tension that I think probably synagogues and day schools all over the country are dealing with,” he said of elevated fears after Pittsburgh and Poway.

Of course, a major issue associated with enhanced security is the price tag.

However, Kinder said that Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) grants have been written, including one to a Chabad recently, some of which have been with his help.

This year, CJP has offered 14 Jewish day schools and two Jewish Community Centers physical security grants and is in the process of giving them to 37 Jewish preschools in the neighborhood, CJP associate vice president and director of security operations Jeremy Yamin told JNS.

“While CJP has not been able to accommodate every request for physical security investments, we are in the process of raising funds to help meet the community’s increased needs,” he said, adding that the umbrella organization encourages and assists Jewish institutions in applying for the Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which provides “funding to support target hardening and other physical security enhancements for nonprofit organizations that are at high risk of a terrorist attack,” according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

While the United States has not been like Europe, where armed personnel now routinely patrol outside synagogues, Kinder said, “There have been two shootings exactly six months apart…in a sanctuary, a place of worship, and unfortunately, there was nobody there to stop them.”

“I would encourage people to consider how catastrophic it would be if a situation like that happened, and whether or not they had done everything they could possibly do to prevent that atrocity from occurring,” he said.