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Seriously — What’s With All the High Security Synagogues?

When I was a rabbinical student in Los Angeles almost thirty years ago, I taught Hebrew school at several synagogues. I often ran late, so I would zoom into the parking lot, rush through the front door, and jog directly to my classroom. No one stopped me at the parking lot, or asked for ID at the entrance, or directed me to the metal detector. I dashed through, unimpeded.

Nowadays my work still involves visiting synagogues (some things never change), in Los Angeles and other places, but there’s no more rushing into the building. At one recent visit, I waited twenty minutes a block away from the synagogue while the armed security guard checked my credentials (good thing I was running early). At another, an armed guard searched my trunk, then pointed me to a lobby where four additional guards checked my ID. At a third, after getting past the parking lot – with searches and an ID check – a guard escorted me directly to the rabbi’s office. This particular synagogue is surrounding by fencing which, fortress-like, blocks off any view of what’s going on inside.

What’s happened? An uninformed observer might guess that there’s been a rash of synagogue shootings. Why else the ubiquitous metal detectors, the armed guards rooting through car trunks? In fact, there have been very few synagogue shootings since 1980, certainly not a trend. There have also been isolated church shootings (and burnings), but you don’t see anywhere near the security consciousness in churches that you see in synagogues.

What’s happened of course is 9/11, and the rise of Al Qaeda and then ISIS and European terrorism directed at Jews. And just enough dramatic shootings in the United States, amplified by social media, to freak out the American Jewish community. Mix in pressure from Jewish defense organizations and pre-school parents worried about their kids and you’ve got a new American phenomena: the fortress synagogue.

But, really, I’m not complaining, or even criticizing. I’m not a security expert. For all I know, we’re doing exactly what we need to do to deter madmen or terrorists from shooting up our most important and visible Jewish institutions. Maybe we’re not doing enough. Jewish visitors from Europe or Latin America often tell me how surprised they are by how little we protect our synagogues.

But I don’t think we’ve thought through the deeper consequences of this new security consciousness. For instance, what happens now to the lonely Jew who develops a sudden yearning to pray at a synagogue? At some places, it’s almost impossible to get in on a weekday. Recently, on a work trip to Manhattan, a spirit of nostalgia hit me and I decided to visit the synagogue where I’d served as assistant rabbi – my first job out of rabbinical school. After making it through the metal detector, the armed guard asked me my business. There was no longer anyone I knew working at the synagogue so I told him I wanted to peak into the sanctuary (it’s a magnificent sanctuary). He took me to an alcove and told me to wait; someone would escort me. I waited twenty minutes. No one came, so I strolled over to the sanctuary (I knew the way). The door was open, so I peaked in. The guard noticed me walking alone, and scolded me with all the politeness of a New Yorker. I apologized and fled.

Again, it’s altogether possible, even likely, that I was in the wrong. Maybe no stranger should ever be allowed to walk alone inside a big synagogue. But what effect does that restriction have on a synagogue’s spiritual atmosphere, even for its members? It’s already virtually impossible for a lone, unaffiliated, seeking Jew to wander unimpeded into a synagogue on the high holidays. My concern is that, in terms of pure accessibility, we’ve turned every day into the high holidays at some of our most important places of prayer.

I also worry about how the atmosphere of these fortress synagogues reinforces fear as a daily emotion, both for parents bringing their kids to a synagogue program, and for the participating kids. Fear, after all, influences how we vote, how we view outsiders, how we understand Jewish identity and history. What messages do armed guards patrolling synagogue parking lots communicate to younger Jews – about interfaith dialogue, relationships with Muslims, our place in American society? A synagogue fenced in so it looks like a top secret installation, complete with security kiosks, can’t help but perpetuate the crisis narrative of American Jewish history, which has so complicated our quest for meaning and continuity.

A famous Talmudic story recounts how Hillel was turned away from a study house, so he climbed up to the roof and sat through a snow storm, listening to the lesson through a crack in the window. Nowadays, he wouldn’t even make it up to the roof. Maybe it’s necessary, a reasonable response to the world we live in. But even if that’s the case (I’m not convinced it is) how do we create warm, welcoming communities in our new fortresses? It’s worth asking the question.

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