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American Synagogues Can’t Keep The Doors Open Anymore, Experts Say After Poway

Two days after a 19-year-old white supremacist stormed a synagogue in California, security experts are calling on synagogues to guard their doors.

That’s a bitter pill to swallow for many American synagogues, for which open doors have been all but an article of faith. But in the wake of two deadly synagogue attacks just six months apart, and amid growing concerns of copycat attacks, security consultants say it’s time to lock down the American synagogue.

“What we’re telling people on an ongoing basis as a first step is that you have to be in control of your door,” said David Pollock, director of public policy and security at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. “Because once someone comes in, it will never be a good day.”

Pollock and other experts now recommend armed security at the synagogue door, accompanied by trained screeners who can recognize synagogue regulars, interview strangers, and call for help if need be.

“You do it in a warm and welcoming way, not, ‘Halt, who goes there’,” Pollock said.

Still, while security screenings are already the norm in U.S. Jewish community centers, Jewish museums, and at the offices of major Jewish organizations, many synagogues have stuck to older practices. For many smaller Jewish congregations, adapting will call for a major cultural shift.

“What it means is that a small number of haters really overturned a tradition of being open and welcoming,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. “And the Jewish community will have to find a new balance.”

Sarna said that, from the earliest days of synagogue life in America, Jews kept the doors of their houses of worship open — in large part to welcome non-Jews. “Many synagogues beautifully believe that they should be open, first of all because it was hoped that when non-Jews came to the synagogue, that would dispel many [negative] myths about Jews and Judaism,” Sarna said.

In recent decades, synagogues in Europe and Israel have increased security measures the face of anti-Semitic attacks and terrorist incidents. Their strategies, including demanding visitors bring passports and provide references to enter prayer services, seemed jarring to American visitors. “In America, that was unthinkable,” Sarna said. “But the unthinkable is now more commonplace as these incidents multiply.”

The Saturday attack on the Chabad synagogue in San Diego, on the six month anniversary of the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, underlined the need for a new attitude towards synagogue safety in the U.S., experts said, amid fear of a contagion of copycat attacks. A manifesto attributed to the suspect in the shooting praised Robert Bowers, the white nationalist who perpetrated the Tree of Life massacre, and the white nationalist who killed fifty people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand last month.

“Copycats quickly, unfortunately, tend to trickle one after the other and they influence each other,” said Josh Gleis, president of Gleis Security Consulting, who consults on security issues for hundreds of synagogues across the U.S. “My concern is that you’re now going to see that with synagogue attacks as well… I think it does change our threat environment to assume that these things will continue. So it’s not just a threat perception anymore.”

Gleis said that armed security at synagogue doors is vital. “I think that, unfortunately, you’re going to see more and more synagogues that are no longer leaving the doors just wide open or unlocked without them being monitored,” Gleis said. “To me, having members of the community in place along with armed security that are ideally retired law enforcement… It’s literally life-changing and it goes a tremendous way.”

The JCRC’s Pollock said that providing a safe environment is in itself welcoming. “If you’re in the house of worship business, you have to be warm and welcoming,” Pollock said. “And that’s a priority. But at the same time, you have to make sure your facility is safe and secure. And what’s happening today is safe and secure is becoming very much part of warm and welcoming.”

For the first time this year, the Department of Homeland Security’s Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which provides funding for security improvements at Jewish institutions, will fund armed security guards at synagogues. Applications are due in May.

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at [email protected] or on Twitter, @joshnathankazis


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