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Does Carrying a Gun to Synagogue Make It Safer or More Dangerous?

Is the person next to you in shul packing heat?

If you live in a state with permissive gun laws, the answer might be yes.

Rabbi Anthony Fratello, of Temple Shaarei Shalom in Boynton Beach, Florida, said the only armed congregants he knows of work in law enforcement. But he would not be surprised if others carry a concealed weapon, too.

“Maybe I wouldn’t be so happy to know Chaim Yankel in the back row had got a gun,” Fratello said. “But I can’t do anything about that. I don’t frisk people when they come in the door.”

The High Holy Days are a time of heightened security. But this year, some American communities feel particularly vulnerable amid reports of rising anti-Semitism in Europe and heightened tension worldwide, including at home, following the war between Israel and Hamas.

Recent reports of anti-Semitic incidents in New York and in Los Angeles, as well as a racial supremacist’s killing of three people in shootings five months ago at Jewish institutions in Overland Park, Kansas, have only increased that sense of insecurity.

Although most synagogues hire additional security for the High Holy Days, for some congregants, bringing a gun to synagogue is a sensible option. Indeed, congregants with concealed carry permits say it is not that unusual — carrying a weapon is part of their daily routine.

“I usually carry a gun everywhere,” said Bill Osofsky, a 65-year-old who lives in Ogden, Utah.

Osofsky said he did not know if his synagogue, Congregation Brith Sholem, prohibits weapons. “They certainly discourage it, but I wasn’t concerned about that,” said Osofsky, who is about to move out of state. “There are higher priorities to me. My safety goes beyond synagogue policy.”

Osofsky first applied for a concealed carry permit in 1993, when he lived on Long Island in New York. He wanted a gun for self-defense after six people were killed and 19 injured in a shooting spree on the Long Island Railroad. But Osofsky found it too difficult to get a permit in New York. When he moved to Utah 17 years ago, the process was much simpler.

It is easier to get a concealed carry permit in the 39 states known as “shall issue” states, where authorities must issue a concealed carry license unless there is a demonstrable reason not to do so. Such states include Florida, Texas and Illinois. In “may issue” states, such as California and New York, concealed carry licenses are much harder to obtain because they are issued at the discretion of local authorities.

Some rabbis approve of congregants coming armed to synagogue, though they are a minority.

Rabbi Stuart Federow, who leads Shaar Hashalom, a Conservative congregation in Houston, said that because synagogues are a prime terrorist target, he is thankful for congregants who arm themselves. He said that dozens of people of all ages show up to an informal Jewish group called Glocks & Bagels, which meets infrequently at a local firing range.

“I know there are members of my congregation who do, in fact, carry a gun when they are at my synagogue. I have no problem with them doing that,” Federow said.

License to Carry: Rabbi Hillel Norry’s congregation has no official policy allowing guns. Image by Courtesy of Hillel Norry

Congregation Shearith Israel, in Atlanta, has no official policy allowing guns, which makes the carrying of a firearm inside the building illegal. But apart from the “philosophical” problem of violating the law, the congregation’s rabbi, Hillel Norry, said he does not mind if a congregant brings a concealed weapon to services. “We have an armed security guard… every Shabbat,” Norry said. “But he’s just one guy.”

Rabbi Akiva Males, of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, said that he, too, has no problem with the few congregants he knows of who have a concealed carry permit and who bring a weapon to services.

Males cited the experience of one congregant, Josh First, who was walking to synagogue with his 9-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son in 2008 when they were attacked by two pit bulls. First shot one of the dogs at point blank range as it chased his son. The shots fatally injured the dog and scared away the other.

“Had I not had a license to carry firearms and a concealed 9 mm pistol, without a doubt my 4-year-old son would have died and my 9-year-old daughter would have been badly mauled and possibly killed,” First explained in a letter to the congregation after the incident.

Still, most rabbis the Forward spoke to oppose congregants bringing a weapon to synagogue. “Let’s say somebody gets in [to the synagogue] who shouldn’t and has a gun and starts shooting,” said Rabbi Peter Berg, of Atlanta. “What happens? Does every congregant who has a gun start shooting randomly and it’s a free-for-all?”

Berg is part of a coalition of clergy in Georgia that earlier this year opposed Gov. Nathan Deal’s bill to expand the places people could legally carry a weapon to include bars, schools and places of worship.

Berg knows firsthand the perils of people bringing a concealed weapon into a synagogue. In 2007, when Berg was a rabbi in Dallas, an 81-year-old congregant accidentally dropped his gun during a service, shooting the congregant’s daughter in the foot. “He was a police officer, so he is trained to use a gun,” Berg said.

The wording of Georgia’s gun bill was amended so that concealed weapons were permitted in places of worship only if the institution had a specific policy allowing people to do so.

The bill prompted many Georgia synagogues to post signs prohibiting weapons and to email congregants to remind them that the synagogue is a no-gun zone. The board of Agudath Achim, a Conservative congregation in Savannah, emailed congregants in June, reminding them that “it has been, and remains, illegal for anyone other than a police officer or security guard engaged by the synagogue to carry a concealed weapon into the synagogue building.”

Rabbi Joel Mosbacher, a gun control activist based in Mahwah, New Jersey, said synagogue protection should be left to private security firms, and to the police. Mosbacher’s father, Lester Mosbacher, was shot and killed during a robbery in Chicago in 1999.

Mosbacher said that far from making synagogues safer, congregants carrying weapons only make it more dangerous because of the risk of accidents.

“The culture of gun love in this country is what is astounding to me,” Mosbacher said. “And that’s true everywhere, and no less in certain parts of the Jewish community.”

Following the shootings in Overland Park, this past April, several rabbis in Kansas City said that congregants have asked about security for the High Holy Days. All three of the victims, none of whom was Jewish, were shot outside the Overland Park JCC and the Village Shalom senior center.

Since the attack, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and local police have worked with Jewish institutions to assess and tighten security.

Jacob Schreiber, president and chief executive officer of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City, said that the JCC will soon hire a community director of security who will advise all Jewish facilities on how to make buildings safer. “Our awareness of security is heightened, and we are actively doing things about it, so people don’t necessarily feel the need to take it into their own hands,” Schreiber said.

Even so, Schreiber added: “I think some synagogues have people that quietly carry guns in their tallis bags. Are people talking about it more? Yeah, I’m sure they are.”

Contact Paul Berger at [email protected] or on Twitter, @pdberger

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