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Colleyville intensifies the debate on guns in synagogues

The four hostages held inside Congregation Beth Israel for 11 hours had furniture. Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who ultimately threw a chair at the gunman and sprinted out a door, wished that one of his congregants had a more potent weapon.

“I would have hoped that one of the people in the synagogue that morning, one of the members from the synagogue, had had a gun on them to have ended things a little bit earlier,” Cytron-Walker told JTA of his escape from the synagogue with the two remaining hostages.

Beth Israel, located in the Dallas suburbs, was streaming its Shabbat services online on Jan. 15 – only Cytron-Walker and three congregants were davening in person.

“We have a community of people who are gun enthusiasts,” said one Texas rabbi.

But the question as to whether guns belong in synagogues continues to be an unsettled one. Permitting guns in the pews is an easy call for some congregations, and anathema for others. As a group, American Jews embrace gun control, and many dislike the idea of firearms in sacred places that are supposed to be sanctuaries, and take names such as Beth Shalom. That idea, though, bumps up against rising antisemitism and the fact that – as Colleyville’s and other incidents in recent years show – the threat of violence against synagogues is real.

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About 10% of Jews owned a handgun, compared to 12% of Catholics and 20% of evangelical Christians, according to a 2016 study. But those numbers are likely higher in the Lone Star State, where Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis, who runs Congregation Kol Ami about 30 minutes north of Beth Israel, said the culture informs attitudes on firearms.

“We have a community of people who are gun enthusiasts,” said Dennis. “There’s a comfort level that a lot of Jews in Texas have that maybe a lot of Jews in New Jersey don’t.”

Texas allows individuals to carry guns in houses of worship without any special restrictions, and requires churches and synagogues to post a sign prohibiting guns if they do not want visitors to bring weapons onto the property. It’s on par with most states, which treat houses of worship like any other private property when it comes to guns – you can carry a gun if you’re licensed to.

States that take a different approach include Nebraska, which bans members of churches and synagogues from carrying guns while they attend services unless they are on a trained security team, and Louisiana, which requires special training for anyone who wishes to do so.

But none of the major Jewish denominations appear to have formal policies on guns in synagogues. The Union for Reform Judaism said it refers member congregations to the Secure Community Network, a branch of the Jewish Federations of North America, and Agudath Israel of America, which represents ultra-Orthodox congregations, said it did not have a uniform policy.

Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath, said its affiliated synagogues tend to rely on hardening facilities, training, strengthening ties with local police and hiring security personnel.

“Above and beyond all those things, though, we daily offer, as Jews have done for millennia, prayers beseeching the Creator to protect us and ‘bless His nation Yisrael with peace,’” Shafran said in an email.

Barry Mael, director of synagogue operations for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said there is no standard firearm policy across the movement and that in parts of the country, where members are more likely to be carrying guns, some synagogue leaders avoid setting rules. Others adopt a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

“It depends on the part of the country, it depends on state law, it depends on culture,” Mehl said.

More congregations have expressed interest in finding a way to make lethal weapons part of their security plan since the 2018 deadly shooting at the Tree of Life congregation in Pittsburgh. Armed guards can come at a heavy cost for congregations, ranging from around $30 per hour for private security to $75 per hour for off-duty police officers. Given the cost, some synagogues enlist congregants to fill that role for free.

The Secure Community Network released a 2020 white paper in response to what adviser Brad Orsini said was a deluge of questions from synagogue officers about whether to allow congregants to carry guns.

“I answer that question at least once a day,” Orsini said, who recalled hearing various scenarios from synagogues across the country, including whether a military veteran who belongs to a congregation should be enlisted to carry his weapon during services.

“Firearms and the Faithful,” the policy brief, analyzes six options for armed security, recommending hiring armed police as the safest option and offering a lengthy warning about using “volunteer armed congregants.” According to the report, volunteers are unlikely to be trained, know how to work with law enforcement, deter security threats or be insured in the event they have to use force.

While questions around how to keep synagogues safe are likely to remain relevant so long as violent antisemitism remains a threat, it is not clear whether a renewed urgency around bringing in armed security has made American Jews more comfortable with firearms.

In addition to concerns around a police presence at synagogues deterring some Jews of Color, Fred Kogen, who runs a Jewish gun club in southern California, said he thinks progressive politics keeps many Jews from embracing gun culture.

“If you’re Jewish and you say you’re interested in shooting,” said Kogen, “many times you’ll be ostracized or regarded as a lesser Jew.”

Bullets and Bagels, the gun club, receives more inquiries in the aftermath of synagogue shootings, but Kogen said those are almost always from Jews who already own firearms and want to increase their training – not converts to the cause.

“I’m not seeing a lot of newbies,” Kogen said.

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