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Synagogues work to create a safe space

A Jewish emergency crew and police officers at the site of the mass shooting at the Tree Of Life Synagogue on Oct. 28, 2018 in Pittsburgh. (Jeff Swensen/Getty)

A Jewish emergency crew and police officers at the site of the mass shooting at the Tree Of Life Synagogue on Oct. 28, 2018 in Pittsburgh. (Jeff Swensen/Getty)

Amidst the avalanche of emotions in the wake of a tragedy on the scale of last week’s mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, fear might be the most immediately pressing.

Fear triggers the imperative for protection. The horrific fact that a synagogue can be as vulnerable to violence as was Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life has caused Jewish congregations across America to take serious stock of their own provisions for security.

That’s certainly the case in Denver. A survey of several synagogues this week revealed that the issue of security has certainly not been ignored. All those that responded have had at least some security measures in place well before Pittsburgh, but all were reevaluating those measures this week to determine whether enhancements or additions are necessary.

Not all Denver synagogues are willing to discuss their security protocols. Several declined, voicing concern that divulging procedures might give potential attackers an edge. Others view such disclosure as a possible deterrent to would be attackers, or as a means of reassuring worried congregants.

While security measures at Denver congregations vary considerably both in method and scope — everything from bulletproof windows to asking congregants to keep an eye on the sanctuary door or even to bring guns to services — synagogue-goers in Denver can take some comfort in the knowledge that their houses of worship are taking the issue of their safety very seriously.

At the DAT Minyan, currently based on the BMH-BJ campus, “we have armed security guards here during the times we have services and expand that when we have large events,” executive director Rob Allen said this week.

Asked whether security provisions are adequate in the wake of the Pittsburgh shootings, Allen acknowledged, “it’s never enough.”

“We’ve had conversations with our congregation and we’ve had security people talk to our congregants to let them know some of the issues and concerns. We think the best thing we can do right now is make sure that our congregants are informed.

“As we expand our precautions further, we’ll make sure that our congregants are informed, but we realize that it’s never enough. There is always, unfortunately, that possibility that something can happen and it’s kind of out of our hands. But we’re doing the best we can.”

On Monday, Oct. 29, the leadership of DAT Minyan and BMH-BJ met to discuss expansion of current security procedures.

“We’re looking at increasing the number of our security personnel,” Allen said. “That’s happening immediately and even before this happened last weekend, BMH-BJ was working to enhance its security.”

Security measures at the West Denver Orthodox synagogue Zera Abraham are “more than adequate,” said Rabbi Tzvi Steinberg, spiritual leader.

“About two or three years ago we started implementing many security measures in anticipation of something like this,” Rabbi Steinberg says.”Our windows are bulletproof, made of very thick glass, bank teller quality windows.

“We’ve installed a camera system in and out of the building and panic buttons which link directly to the police department. We have coordinated with the police department so that they know that when that panic button is pressed, something is happening at the synagogue, an extreme emergency.

“We have an alarm system . . . and we’ve secured our utility lines as per the instructions of the police department. We have a security fence and when there’s a large crowd we have two or three individuals who are armed. Every door is locked at all times.”

After the Pittsburgh attack, Rabbi Steinberg said, “our security committee is meeting this week to see if there are any chinks in the armor, so to speak.”

It’s an impressive security protocol, the rabbi acknowledges, but it only goes so far.

“So, we’ve installed security windows, a camera system and a security fence but I don’t believe that security measures are the answer. It’s just a foolish response but it’s important to have.

“We encourage prayer. We need the protection of G-d and we need to implore for that. That’s the point that I want driven home for my community. All protections are important and should be there, but we need to pray for G-d’s mercy.”

Rabbi Kim Harris, spiritual leader of B’nai Chaim, ticked off the procedures recently put into place at her congregation in Jefferson County.

“We go to all of the faith security training workshops. We’ve had the Jeffco Sheriff’s Dept. come and walk through our building to see what we can do. The congregation also met with the ADL, before I got here.”

In the wake of the Pittsburgh shootings, members of B’nai Chaim went over their security training, discussing means of distracting and trying to overcome mass shooters and reviewed escape routes from the sanctuary in the eventuality of an attack.

“What we do on a typical basis is keep the lights on, 24-7, in our foyer, which is all glass. We have lights in the parking lot; some are on all night, others go on at 10 p.m. We usually have somebody who will sit in the back of the sanctuary to keep an eye on the door, in case somebody comes in during services. And we have the Sheriff’s Department do drive-bys, especially after something like this, when we ask them to do extra visits.”

The rabbi also discussed the security limitations in a small congregation with limited resources, and the liberal inclinations of her membership.

“We don’t have a security guard — we can’t afford that — and we don’t want guns in services. I had a congregant come up to me and say, ‘I’m a gun-toting Jew,’ and offered to bring it, and I said, well, no…we feel like someone who’s not professionally trained to handle guns could only make things worse.”

Last weekend, Rabbi Harris said, some congregants at B’nai Chaim expressed hesitation about having their children attend Sunday school but ultimately chose to bring them.

At her Shabbat sermon last weekend, the rabbi chose not to concentrate on the fear and horror of the Pittsburgh shootings, but to focus on the Jewish emphasis on loving one’s neighbor and respecting the differences between people.

“I wanted to talk about it without freaking them out,” she said.

Some two months ago, Aish Denver received a grant from the Dept. of Homeland Security for security improvements “of over six figures,” Rabbi Yaakov Meyer said.

(A handful of other Denver synagogues, including EDOS and BMH-BJ, have received similar grants, designed to help synagogues and other at-risk nonprofits enhance their physical security.)

The Aish grant already received has been put to use, Rabbi Meyer said, and the congregation has plans for the funds pending.

In addition to the federal assistance, the rabbi says, “for a few months, we’ve had in place an armed guard outside during Shabbos and additional police at any time that there’s a large gathering at the synagogue.”

“We keep the doors locked on a routine basis and obviously we’re going to tighten that up even more. We’re going to reinforce all of those precautions and perhaps even improve them.”

The synagogue also has a security camera system.

“We also have a security committee looking for ways to improve and enforce security measures.”

Congregation BMH-BJ, which has already been the target of anti-Semitic vandalism, began implementing security procedures several years ago, executive director Ilene Rosen said.

“We have had security precautions for a long time, including an armed guard. On weekdays our doors are locked. We have key fobs and key codes to get in. If you’re a visitor you sign in with a guard to get into the building.”

Early this week, the congregation sent members a letter detailing enhanced measures in the wake of Pittsburgh, including the addition of a third security guard.

Under the new procedures, beginning on Saturday, Nov. 3, members will be able to enter the synagogue only through the east and sanctuary entrances, both of which will be monitored by armed security. The doors near the chapel will be kept locked.

In addition, Rosen said, “for the last month we have been upgrading our camera system to have live stream cameras around the building and in different areas inside the building.”

“We have worked in the past and will continue to work with the Denver Police Dept., the ADL and Homeland Security,” Rosen said. A Homeland Security grant in 2017 helped pay for the synagogue’s security camera system.

“We realize that we can’t do it on our own,” Rosen added. “Our people have to be vigilant also. If they see something that seems out of line, they should not hesitate to talk to a guard or a member of the staff. It takes a village.”

Rosen also expressed a note of resilient defiance in the face of potential threats: “We won’t lock our doors on Shabbos because we’re a synagogue. We’re going to remain open. We’re not going to be scared of that. We want people to come here and pray and be part of the congregation”

Asked whether BMH-BJ congregants should carry arms in the synagogue, “it’s a hard one for me to answer,” Rosen responded.

The congregation’s leadership has not asked them to do so, she said.

“It’s their right for people to be armed personally, but if they’re there — and if they have the proper license — they should be the last line of defense.”

Armed worshippers should know, Rosen said, that there is an inherent danger in using a weapon, and not necessarily just from an attacker: “If something happens, the security team or the police will not hesitate to shoot someone with a gun.”

Noting the irony of even having such a discussion, Rosen concludes on a plaintive note: “It’s sad that we have come to this.”

Temple Micah, which shares space with Park Hill United Methodist Church in northeast Denver, looks at security differently from most other Denver synagogues.

“We are in somewhat of a unique situation because we don’t have our own building,” said executive director Kelli Theis this week. “We share space with a church so we go at this jointly.”

In conjunction with Park Hill Methodist, Temple Micah last August offered sanctuary to an immigrant woman, Theis explained.

“As a result all of the doors of the building are locked at all times; you need a pass key or swipe key to get in. We’re on the outlook for ICE so we have precautions in place.”

This already established level of security was enhanced during this year’s High Holidays when Micah hired an armed security guard, but Theis doesn’t anticipate the congregation opting to hire guards on a full-time basis.

After Pittsburgh, however, “I started the conversation with our board president and rabbi on Sunday to revisit with the church what we do for security, so that’s in the works. We haven’t yet had the opportunity to sit down with the church.”

Theis noted that the Micah members seem considerably more aware of security needs than the Park Hill church-goers, even though churches have also been the victims of mass shootings, in Texas and South Carolina most recently.

“This is something that the Jewish community thinks about all the time,” Theis said.

As a participant in ADL security training last year, Theis said, “I know that my eyes were very much opened in that we were having discussions with law enforcement and other security folks about how to survive an active shooting event.”

The training encouraged Theis, a former medic, to assemble a trauma kit for Temple Micah and to adopt a realistic attitude about today’s threats to houses of worship.

“We can’t hide our heads in the sand and hope it’s not going to happen,” she said. “It is going to happen, either to us or to someone we know. It’s just a matter of time, so we need to go into this with eyes wide open and just help each other. That’s the lovely part of being a partner with the church. It makes this feel a little less lonely.”

Chris Leppek may be reached at IJNEWS@aol.com.

Copyright © 2018 by the Intermountain Jewish News



Chris Leppek

IJN Assistant Editor | ijnews@aol.com


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