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Can we make our synagogues secure without causing the vulnerable to suffer?

“I can see they’re good guys,” Malik Faisal Akram said of the rabbi and three congregants he held hostage at Congregation Beth Israel in Texas. “They let me in, I said ‘is this a night shelter?’ and they let me in …”

His words pierced me. Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, whose bravery empowered his congregants to escape unharmed after a harrowing 11 hours, told a Forward reporter that on that fateful day, Shabbat morning services were interrupted by a man knocking on the synagogue’s door, asking for help. The rabbi let him in, made him tea, returned to lead services — and was soon being taken hostage by that very same man.

As someone who works closely with homeless populations, I know firsthand that many people would not survive without communal institutions, like synagogues, providing vital social services. And yet doing this work, and being known for doing this work, leaves Jewish communities incredibly vulnerable to violent antisemitic attacks.

When I heard the news after Shabbat, I immediately thought of the Tree of Life massacre. The 2018 shooter had been fixated on the synagogue’s work with HIAS. The Tree of Life congregations had participated in an endeavor earlier in the month to support refugees, which is why the shooter chose to target this particular group of synagogues. HIAS’s chief executive was shaken by the incident, and later noted that, “It changed everything for us. We’d always known there were people out there who hated HIAS, hated our work. We’d always kind of ignored them as fringe and paid no attention whatsoever to them.”

As a native of Squirrel Hill and a regular shul goer, the tragedy hit me very personally. It created a dissonance in my mind, forcing me to recognize that synagogues are both places of refuge as well as places of fear. Before the attack, a code on a door and perhaps a friendly unarmed guard was all we felt we needed to stay safe. After those murders, we could never fathom taking such a level of risk again.

Our communities now invest billions of dollars into security measures, make relationships with police departments a top priority and, in many congregations, have normalized gun-carrying on Shabbat regardless of halachic complexities.

In my role as an urban social scientist at the University of Texas at Arlington, I’ve learned that the idea of security, and what precisely makes people feel safe, is a loaded one. In a broad sense, security is the word we use to describe our attempts to regulate our environment — to calm ourselves from the threat of a person, a place or an event — by investing in what we believe we can control.

Forced to face the reality that hatred can translate into physical violence, HIAS leaders internalized that antagonism is just as much a threat as apathy. The renewed attention to their cause has enabled them to fight more strongly for refugees, but they have had to consider the potential negative impacts these activities might have on their supporters as well.

Increasing physical security at Jewish institutions has created many new and constantly changing lines between who is and is not welcome. In securing anything, we are suggesting that there is a clear line between threats and safety. As a result, specific behaviors, individuals and scenarios are categorized as either safe or unsafe. There is little room for nuance, and ambiguity can be deadly.

Over the past three years, I’ve seen the Jewish world, and particularly my home bases within the Orthodox community (spanning Pittsburgh, New York, Cleveland and now Dallas) engage in communal and privatized securitization in a way I have never seen before. Local community members spend countless hours organizing governmental and private funding to pay for cameras and other monitoring devices, officers carry weapons openly on premises during open hours, individual members bring weapons to shul and encourage self-defense classes, and state-funded active shooter drills and trainings have become the norm. Socially, going to a gun range is an increasingly popular date night outing (at least in my Orthodox community).

Even private spaces, such as homes, have been newly secured with similar monitoring devices and personal weapons. Those who already owned protective devices prior to this new securitization turn seem to have gained an elite status in the community as knowledgeable experts and revered individuals. On my WhatsApp and social media platforms, I’ve seen people openly inquire about gun training and brag about their gun usage. Meanwhile, conversations about varying perspectives on public safety, concerns about guns in homes and even an open dialogue about the mix of drinking and guns at shul kiddushes have been minimal to nonexistent. The government’s role hasn’t been discussed all that much, with people accepting freely that grants for monitoring devices, funding for officers in uniform and being in proximity to police officers are inherently good things.

As someone who has been Orthodox her whole life, I can say that a massive shift from trepidation to extreme acceptance around any issue, in only a few years, is an almost unheard of phenomenon. The rapid acceptance of personal and communal securitization I have seen in my own community is stunning.

But when I heard the words of the hostage-taker, and imagined a man presenting himself as someone in need only to then endanger so many lives, securitization hit me in a new way. Night shelters and services for the unhoused are particularly salient issues to me as a homelessness researcher. I am deeply knowledgeable of the lack of safe and adequate services for those who are the most marginalized among us. And with far too few public institutions to feed, clothe and shelter the unhoused, faith-based organizations have stepped into this role over the last four decades with decentralized federal funding enabling them to become direct social service providers.

Though churches are a far more common space for services for the unhoused, synagogues often do function this way, sometimes more directly providing aid to those within the synagogue community: Jews in need. Jews in crisis. Jews who have nowhere else to turn.

Watching the livestream clips, I couldn’t help but wonder if our next round of securitization will be a reduction in social services. A re-envisioning of how close the synagogue will be to vulnerable Jewish populations. A limit on which seekers will be allowed to enter, which needs will be served and for how long we will tolerate the presence of those who are deeply in need before we question their motives.

As I fear that this might be our next turn, it is striking to me that very few people seem to actually express any sense of knowing and feeling that we are safer, even as security measures have ramped up. Despite attempts to control our surroundings, there has been an increase in reported antisemitic incidents and a tremendous amount of online antisemitic activity over the past three years. And with each new major event, it seems we continue to turn to increased securitization. Can my shul with a guard, a code, a camera and at least four open carry gun owners really be any functionally safer without shuttering its doors?

Have we gone too far? When will we know? Will we begin to indulge biases based on our socially constructed views of who is a threat? Will we police Jews in need who enter communal and private spaces? And, more than anything, what have we lost communally while we are searching for something that simply will not come?

The hyper securitization mindset of the last three years has also created a gated-ness within our minds and our community. If we do not protect the role of the synagogue as a site of resettlement, support and assistance, our vulnerable members will surely suffer the most.

To contact the author, email [email protected].

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