Protecting Synagogues the Right Way

By Stephen Bryen

[Stephen Bryen is the author of the book, Security for Holy Places: How to Build a Security Plan For Your Church, Synagogue, Mosque or Temple (Morgan James Publishing). The book is available from most booksellers.]

It seems there is still a debate, maybe better it was called an argument, in the Jewish community about synagogue security.  One part of the community, mostly representing the most liberal (or leftist) elements, is against implementing security at synagogues saying they don’t want them turned into fortresses.  

This is not a new argument and it is heard in churches also.

In the case of the Colleyville, Texas synagogue, that just went through a hostage drama, the rabbi there encouraged active shooter training for himself and members of Beth Israel, the name of the synagogue.  He also made a huge blunder in inviting Malik Faisal Akram in for tea before the start of Saturday services.

We still need to learn more about Akram but it is a good bet that Akram targeted the synagogue because it was close to the prison where Aafia Siddiqui is serving an 86-year sentence after being convicted of attempting to murder U.S. soldiers.  Akram wanted her freed and allegedly believed that he could trade the hostages for her release.

But there are many other synagogues that lack security or, if they have any, it is far from adequate.  The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was the scene of an active shooter where 11 people were killed and six wounded after the shooter walked into the unlocked doors of the synagogue with a  Colt AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and three Glock .357 SIG semi-automatic pistols.

In Poway, California a shooter walked into the Poway Chabad synagogue on the last day of Passover, April 27, 2019. That shooter fatally shot one person and wounded three others. He was armed with an AR-15 style rifle and would have killed more but his rifle jammed. There was no security at Poway Chabad, although one member of the congregation, encouraged by the Rabbi, had a gun but it was outside of the sanctuary.

The culprit in thee cases was a total lack of perimeter security –meaning protecting the outside areas at the entrance of the synagogue.

In Halle, Germany 27-year-old Stephan Balliet tried to break into the Halle Synagogue on Yom Kippur.  Though there was no guard, the doors of the building were locked solidly.  Balliet went on to kill two people, a woman who was passing by who demanded to know what he was doing, and a man in a Kabob shop down the street. He was armed with a home assembled semi-automatic weapon and home build hand grenades.  Had there been an armed guard and if, nonetheless Balliet had tried to assault the synagogue, Balliet might have been shot and the poor woman on the street would not have died, nor would the man in the back of the Kabob shop.

Halle Synagogue

It might seem unusual in Germany, particularly on the high holiday of Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”) that there was no physical security present.  Whether that was the case in other synagogues in Germany, where far right violent anti-Semitism and problems with Islamic extremism abound, isn’t at all clear.

All too often people respond to attacks on religious places instead of preparing to prevent them.

Perimeter security requires armed guards, especially when services are underway or when there are children present, whether for day care, or camps, or for religious education.   Similarly, protection is important for life cycle events, including weddings, confirmations, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and even funerals.  There have been quite a few shooting incidents at funerals in the United States and in other countries.  

Armed and uniformed guards are a vital requirement for security.  The uniform is important because it serves as a deterrent to a would-be attacker.  If the guard is drawn from the local police department the guard is especially effective because he has active liaison with the police department and can call in backup.  In some localities off duty police can serve as paid security guards.

A guard out of uniform involves collateral risks.  For example, in an incident an out of uniform guard could be seen by police or a SWAT team as the active shooter, creating confusion and risking the life of the guard.

It is quite true that a policeman with a handgun is no match for an assailant with a semi-automatic weapon.  In some localities, as in some European countries, guards at synagogues have assault rifles and shotguns to rebalance the odds against any attack.  This is most unlikely today in the United States, but as Bob Dylan’s famous song says, The Times they are a-Changin’.

An armed guard is certainly not the whole story when it comes to perimeter security.  There are other important considerations.

For example, a building can be assaulted by a vehicle, car or truck (there are a number of recent incidents, some of the “accidents” where vehicles have crashed into buildings).  The best way to prevent this is with bollards or other physical impediments.  At my synagogue we used large, strategically places boulders.  They are inexpensive, effective and fit into the landscape.

Then there is the need for cameras, good lighting and motion detectors.  There are a large and constantly growing number of assaults on holy places, sometimes arsons, break ins, burglaries, vandalism and desecrations.  Holy places are particularly vulnerable when they are not conducting services or other activities.

I maintain a daily record of these incidents on a special Facebook page ( https://www.facebook.com/SECHOLYPLACES).  The Facebook pages serves multiple purposes: it helps to let readers know what is happening around the country and the variety of threats, old and new.  It also helps illustrate where security works, and where it is absent or fails to work.

Synagogues need to seriously consider metal detectors and bag inspection.  There are cases where an intruder will try and get past minimal security and, sometimes, even dress like the other members of the Congregation.  This has happened in some Orthodox synagogues, as in Europe and Israel.  The best policy is that a stranger is a stranger and should not be invited in without a serious security check.  Some active shooters and other criminals may attend services and seem harmless, but later return with a gun.  Sometimes well placed questions and credibility checks can avert disaster.

Some think that if a synagogue member can bring his or her own gun (“concealed carry”) that they can fight back against a threat.  There are differences all over the country on whether concealed carry is permitted and if, and under what circumstances, concealed carry is possible inside a church, synagogue, temple or mosque building. 

Assuming concealed carry is permitted, there are certain problems and risks associated with carrying a gun.

The first and most obvious is that a congregant with a gun could be mistaken for the active shooter and cut down by police. A second issue is if the armed member of the congregation shoots and hits the wrong person. A third problem is liability, not only for the concealed carry person but for the synagogue (or church, mosque or temple).  Finally there is the question of background and training of the member with a concealed carry permit (or in some states there is no permit needed).  Sometimes a congregant is a retired police officer or has a military background, which is helpful.  But other times the concealed carry holder isn’t trained.  Deciding whether to authorize a concealed carry holder is a major synagogue issue that should not be handled in a cavalier way and certainly not without questioning competence and desirability against the risks and dangers.

It is important to note that a congregant acting as an unofficial security guard on the perimeter raises some of the same issues as one seated in the congregation.  Security volunteers can be very helpful, but it is generally a best practice for them to be “armed” with radios that connect to a uniformed and armed security guard or to call 911 in case the security guard is unavailable for some reason.  Volunteers need to be trained and they need to understand the risks involved in their service.  

Certainly it is a good idea to get security training, particularly what to do in the case of an active shooter. Such training is increasingly available, either from local police, the FBI or community organizations.

There is no perfect security and no system without weaknesses and flaws.  But a reasonable security effort that includes armed guards and ancillary systems (such as bag checks), along with volunteers to help ferret out potential risks, can save lives and help sustain the religious integrity of a sanctuary.

For sure there is a right way, a well informed congregation with serious leaders, and the wrong way, either no security or piecemeal security measures,  As synagogues once again are motivated to take a fresh look at security, one hopes they do the right thing and muscle up to prevent tragedy.