Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Synagogues are meant to welcome strangers. A year after Pittsburgh shooting, they lock their doors.

The weight of these decisions has come into new focus with the recent High Holidays and the one-year anniversary of the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooting later this month.

Officer Dan Gilbert stands guard out front of Beth David Reform Congregation.
Officer Dan Gilbert stands guard out front of Beth David Reform Congregation.Read moreEmily Cohen

The doors to Beth Israel Congregation of Chester County had always been open and unlocked, mirroring Jewish teachings to welcome strangers.

But after the mass shooting at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue last October, Beth Israel, a conservative congregation in Chester Springs, gradually added security. Beth Israel installed an outdoor camera that a secretary can monitor from her desk. People who aren’t members have to sign in. The rabbi carries a panic button on his belt.

And, for the first time in Rabbi Jon Cutler’s more than three decade career, his congregants walked past an armed guard on their way to High Holiday services.

Over the last year, congregations have debated the best ways to welcome all who wish to pray, while also implementing security measures, whether that includes photo identification and bag checks, bolted doors, and even hiring armed guards.

“Is this who we want to be?” Rabbi Cutler, 63, asked himself. He thought of a passage from the Haggadah, the book used to retell the story of Passover, and a lesson learned from Abraham and Sarah’s open tent described in Genesis: “All who are hungry, let them come and eat. All who are needy, let them come in and sit at our table," he said. "That’s a fundamental concept in Judaism.”

During Yom Kippur services last week in Germany, a gunman reportedly with a head-mounted camera filming him as he said that Jews were “the root of all these problems” tried to enter a synagogue full of worshipers, only to be stopped by a locked door. He killed two people outside.

The weight of these safety-related decisions has come into new focus over the last few weeks.

For people who go to synagogue only a few times a year, the Jewish High Holidays, which began with Rosh Hashanah the night of Sept. 29, are usually when they show up. Synagogues, like other institutions, tend to react to current events, and have beefed up security measures in the past.

This year’s services might have been the first since the April shooting at the Chabad of Poway in San Diego County during a Passover service, and the attack at the Pittsburgh synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018, during Sabbath services, where 11 people were killed and six others were wounded. It became the deadliest known attack on Jewish people in American history.

Following the Pittsburgh shooting, the number of applicants for federal security grants more than doubled from the previous fiscal year. While the grant program does not prioritize a specific religious affiliation, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said Jewish organizations nationally represent about 80% of applicants and recipients.

For the first time, the Jewish Federation Real Estate Group allocated separate money for security assessments, totaling $50,000 for 30 synagogues in the Greater Philadelphia area that didn’t have one in the prior 18 months.

Not all synagogues felt comfortable describing what safety measures they implemented, saying that sharing security plans, even generally, would put them at risk.

“The tragedy in Pittsburgh just totally changed the stakes,” said Frank Riehl, security director for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. These places of worship “are realizing maybe we need to lock our doors.”

‘What kind of way is this to run a synagogue?'

At Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne, there are now always laminated information cards in the sanctuary pews and chapel chairs that show evacuation routes and guides on how to respond to an active shooter, including when to run, hide, or fight.

Congregation president Louis Bricklin, 69, outlined these security updates in a September newsletter, including how the building’s glass will be outfitted with shatterproof sheathing.

“I cannot believe I just had to write that sentence,” Bricklin wrote in the newsletter. “What kind of way is this to run a synagogue, the very existence of which is intended to provide our members with a place of community and worship, welcoming to all? ‘Conflicted’ is likely an understatement for what clergy and lay leadership have experienced in reviewing and ultimately approving these changes.”

There is no one solution for safety, said Naomi Adler, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. Congregations and different denominations have various philosophies, ranging from simple locks to police cars parked outside to armed guards, or bulletproof doors.

Some Jews refrain from using technology on the Sabbath, but now, some rabbis are keeping their phones on them during services, said Steven Rosenberg, chief marketing officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. An attacker would likely enter a sanctuary or chapel from the back, so a rabbi would spot the person first and be able to call for help.

Though synagogues can receive federal grants through the Department of Homeland Security, not all feel comfortable accepting money from the department that oversees Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Other Jewish leaders also point out that for Jews of color, those who are part of the LGBTQ community, or those living with mental illness, the presence of police and private security may make them feel more at risk.

At Kol Tzedek in West Philadelphia, which describes itself as a "Reconstructionist social justice-focused synagogue,” former president Stefan Lynch said leaders cowrote a High Holiday safety plan with other congregations to align security with their values. Kol Tzedek’s congregation consists of about 250 households with the average adult member younger than 40.

Lynch declined to discuss the specifics of the plans, citing safety concerns, but did say the congregation decided not to cooperate with DHS, like other synagogues, because Kol Tzedek’s social justice work is in opposition to the agency.

“We’re really trying to be very pragmatic,” Lynch said, “while also recognizing that Jews are not all made safer by police and the Department of Homeland Security and armed guards.”

There is limited research surrounding the effectiveness of armed security during a mass shooting, said Lacey Wallace, a criminal-justice assistant professor at Penn State-Altoona who studies the impact of disasters and mass shootings on fear and the ways people protect themselves.

These debates echo others surrounding school safety, such as whether to arm teachers and install metal detectors, Wallace said. As in schools, it’s possible the armed guard could respond to a shooter quickly, rather than waiting for police to arrive, which could reduce the number of casualties. But there’s the risk the armed guard or armed teacher could accidentally shoot an innocent bystander.

'The reality of life’

Rabbi Yudy Shemtov, of the Chabad Lubavitch of Bucks County in Newtown, called increased security a “prudent move” and equated it to having a smoke alarm to detect a fire instead of relying on someone to call the fire department.

Today, he said, all public spaces are vulnerable and enhancing security is “the reality of life.”

“A religious man will do everything he can to be secure. That’s what our faith in God tells us: ‘Do what you can and I’ll protect you,’” Rabbi Shemtov, 53, said. “Faith requires a person to take concrete action.”

Heather Bickley, 45, of Media, always considered herself a pacifist, who never thought guns were an answer to problems. But she felt more threatened as a Jewish American after the mass shooting at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue and remembered calling her mother and saying, “'I don’t want to send my children to Hebrew school.’

“She yelled at me and said that’s not the Heather she knows,” Bickley said.

Last spring, Bickley noticed that there was an armed officer at her synagogue (her synagogue declined to confirm or deny the presence of an armed guard; because of this, she did not want to identify her synagogue). Her daughter became a Bat Mitzvah in May and she said there was at least one armed guard at her service.

“I feel my children are safer with someone who is trained and legally entitled to carry a gun,” Bickley said, “which is a very new and rare feeling for me.”