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After Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, clergy and faith officials plan security measures at conference

The conference was held less than three weeks after the massacre of 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, and less than a week after 12 people gunned down at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Attendees listen to speakers at the "Securing Sacred Spaces and Places" seminar at the National Constitution Center.
Attendees listen to speakers at the "Securing Sacred Spaces and Places" seminar at the National Constitution Center.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

More than 200 representatives of synagogues, churches, and other faith-based institutions attended a conference at the National Constitution Center on Tuesday to consider safety measures in the wake of the mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

The half-day seminar, "Securing Sacred Spaces and Places," featured presentations by FBI agents, local police and religious leaders who discussed prevention strategies, coping with on-site shooting incidents, and identifying individuals who might attack a house of worship.

The event was held less than three weeks after the massacre of 11 people during Sabbath services at the Tree of Life synagogue, and less than a week after 12 people were gunned down at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

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Mark Brown, a deacon at St. John Baptist Church in Camden, said he went to the seminar because of the rash of mass shootings.

"Everybody is under the impression that you'd never have to do this [at a house of worship], because it's a place of peace and safety, but because of recent events, we have to be proactive," said Brown, who also is security supervisor for his congregation.

Hate crime incidents reported to the FBI increased about 17 percent from 2016 to 2017, up from 6,121 to 7,175, according to the Uniform Crime Reporting Program's Hate Crime Statistics report released Tuesday. In general, African Americans are the group most often victimized by hate crimes, but among religious groups, Jews are most often targeted, said Louis Lappen, deputy U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

The U.S. Attorney's Office cosponsored the conference with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Delaware Valley Intelligence Center, a coalition of local, state, and federal officials who share information when handling homeland security emergencies.

The groups began planning the seminar several months ago, before the Pittsburgh shootings.

"We believe that security is something that we should be doing day in and day out," said Nancy Baron-Baer, the ADL's regional director.

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Faith-based institutions have increasingly focused on their security in the wake of a rash of shootings that since 2012 have resulted in the deaths of six people at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis.; three at a Jewish community center and senior citizen complex in Overland Park, Kan.;  nine at a church in Charleston, S.C.; six at a mosque in Quebec City, Quebec; two outside a church in Fresno, Calif., and 26 at a church in Sutherland Springs, Tex.

Within days of the Pittsburgh massacre, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia hosted a safety seminar for area synagogues, and last June the organization hired its first-ever director of security. After the Sutherland Springs shooting last November, an Anglican bishop in Central Pennsylvania, who also works as a constable, began carrying a gun in the pulpit.

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Young Israel of Elkins Park synagogue recently received a government grant to upgrade security at its Cheltenham Township temple. Synagogue president Tom Wolpert attended the seminar to help plan strategy.

"It's shocking that you have to come to [events] like this," Wolpert said, "but I'm just trying to learn quickly, because you have to act quickly."

Law enforcement officials encouraged religious leaders and community members to work with them to combat violent attacks on houses of worship. Any disturbing situation or threat — on social media or elsewhere — should be taken seriously, Lappen said.

The community has a crucial role to play in its own protection, Baron-Baer said. "It's important to plan ahead, to promote [your security] plan, and to practice, practice, practice."