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Synagogues Make Sacrifices To Upgrade Security After Poway, Pittsburgh

The wake-up call for the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue came the morning 11 Jews at prayer were killed in Pittsburgh. The Reform congregation created a security committee and quickly began planning and implementing changes.

Because they did not have a deep rainy-day fund to draw on, they cut the facilities budget, and added a $190 security fee to every membership account.

“We need a new boiler, and we need some repairs on the roof, and there are other facilities expenses … we’re just kicking the can down the road,” said Sue Gold, Brooklyn Heights’ executive director.

On April 27, 6 months after Pittsburgh, there was another synagogue shooting in Poway, just outside San Diego. Now, security experts are insisting that Jewish communities invest in active shooter training, guards and surveillance technology. Most synagogues don’t run surpluses, so the new, security-related expenses are forcing difficult decisions on clergy, board members and staff.

“Money is limited, so you really do need to prioritize, and you’re making hard choices on what those priorities are,” said Patrick Daly, the deputy director and chief operating officer of the Secure Community Network, a not-for-profit established in 2004 to address potential security threats to Jewish institutions in North America.

The shootings come against a background of rising hate crime: Anti-Semitic assaults more than doubled in 2018, and incidents like vandalism were close to historic highs, according to a report by the Anti-Defamation League. Now experts say synagogues must prioritize security needs by figuring out what they are first, and how to pay for them second.

“That’s a radical shift in thinking that I think many synagogues and Jewish organizations don’t usually apply,” said Elliot Karp, a longtime executive in Jewish nonprofits and the former CEO of the Jewish Federation of Las Vegas.

Synagogue dues already cover things like the building: the mortgage, maintenance costs, heat and light. There’s the rabbi, maybe a cantor, the office staff, educators and youth group leaders. Programming costs, catering. New prayer books. The weekly whiskey budget.

And now, across the country, synagogues are adding new items to that long list: professional guards, security cameras, ID systems, perimeter fencing and more.

The costs add up quickly. Off-duty police officers can charge $45 to $65 an hour, Daly said. Private security consultants can charge between a few thousand dollars and $40,000 to train staff and create safety plans. Temple Emanu-El, in San Francisco, recently paid $4,000 for a day-long staff training with a consultant from the marquee security firm Gavin de Becker and Associates, best known in recent months for its eponumous founders’ efforst to uncover who sold lewd photos of billionaire Jeff Bezos to the National Enquirer.

Technology can be even more expensive. A security camera system can run to $100,000, Daly said, while an electronic ID system, which requires members to scan their cards to enter, can run to tens of thousands of dollars. One JCC, Daly said, spent in the somewhere between $75,000 and $125,000 on a fingerprint access system.

There are also new, high-tech products for security being sought out by synagogues and community centers. Gabriel, an Israeli company, makes an alarm-style panic button that can manifest as a physical button on a wall and also as software that can be installed on mobile devices. Communities in the Midwest, the New York City area and South Florida are planning on implementing the Gabriel system over the summer and fall, according to the company’s founder, Yoni Sherizen. Starter packs, including ten wall mounts, are $10,000.

Some synagogues are hoping to fund Sherizen’s system with grants from the Department of Homeland Security.

Even without the high-tech systems, a comparatively modest investment in synagogue security can weaken a synagogue financially.

Temple Beth Jacob, a Reform community in Concord, New Hampshire, began updating its security systems after Pittsburgh, and as the community’s rabbi, Robin Nafshi, began being named in white supremacist blogs written by people in the Concord area.

Beth Jacob has applied for funding from the Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which is administered by the Department of Homeland Security. The fund has been a major focus of Jewish communal efforts to receive government subsidies for security upgrades, largely based on the efforts of the Secure Community Network in publicizing the grant. Beth Jacob, like other synagogues who spoke to the Forward for this story, declined to discuss the specific security upgrades they have made, for fear that publicizing them would reduce their effectiveness.

But the grants are not guaranteed, and Nafshi said that in order to shore up their budget after spending thousands of dollars on security, they had to ask a national Jewish organization to forgive an outstanding debt the temple owed to them.

“We have been a financially healthy congregation, and so for us it’s a hit, and it’s not all that easy to absorb,” Nafshi said. “We’re not in dire straits. But it has definitely had an impact on our budget.”

Yet while many communities are stretching their budget to the breaking point to pay for added security, some are worried that the security upgrades — recommended by experts or requested by congregants — will be endless.

Since the shooting at Chabad of Poway over Passover , the major talking point for security experts is having armed guards. Rabbi Benjamin Weiner, leader of the Reconstructionist Jewish Community of Amherst, in Massachusetts, said that the question of armed guards has made some in his community insecure about whether they are doing enough. He feels that to push back against calls for armed guards — both because of concerns about the budget and the community’s sense of hospitality — puts him in a tricky position.

“When I say things like that to the community as a rabbi, I’m sticking my neck out there,” he said. “God forbid something happens, part of the narrative becomes, ‘Oh the rabbi told us it was safe, and we’re not safe.’ And that weighs heavily on me.”

There are emerging ways for synagogues to make ends meet on security. The Department of Homeland Security nonprofit grant can now be used to pay for armed security personnel, where before it could only be used for infrastructure and technology, and some city federations are also providing security grants.

But while grants are limited, and budgets tight, there will always be another layer of security that can be added by synagogues that fear becoming the next national news story. In a recent email to congregants, the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue announced that it would be creating electronic IDs for every member in order to access the building.

“Of course were concerned about how far can we go, and what can we afford to spend on security,” said Sue Gold, the executive director. “Everybody is concerned about that. It’s not a bottomless pit of resources.”

Ari Feldman is a staff writer at the Forward. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @aefeldman

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