In October, an anti-Semite carrying three handguns and a semiautomatic weapon stormed into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Robert Bowers, incensed that Jews were interfering with the president’s efforts to “make America great again” and furious that the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society was bringing “invaders in that kill our people,” stands accused of killing 11 worshippers. Twenty-two of the 63 federal charges he now faces are punishable by death.
The shooting is now considered the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history. For many American Jews like me, it represented a declaration of a new normal.
For decades, “the breadth of acceptance accorded U.S. Jews was indeed exceptional, probably unique,” explained David Berger, dean of the Bernard Revel Graduate School at Yeshiva University. For many people, the Pittsburgh killings were the latest sign that acceptance was starting to fade, triggering fears that the United States, an inspirational refuge for so many American Jews’ grandparents and great-grandparents, could no longer protect us.
And so, increasingly and across the country, American Jews are taking steps to protect ourselves.
Within hours of the shooting in Pittsburgh, Secure Community Network, a nonprofit partner of the Jewish Federations of North America that responds to incidents and provides security assessments to synagogues and other Jewish institutions, arrived on scene to assist authorities. Centralized synagogue movements fielded hundreds of calls from anxious congregational leaders. Within two months of the shooting, Community Security Service, a nonprofit collaboration of former military and security professionals that trains Jewish volunteers to protect their institutions, recorded an 150 percent increase in volunteers going through its training. Nearly 1,000 American Jewish people attended basic security concepts programs in multiple states, according to Jason Friedman, the executive director of CSS.
Even gun use, once a backburner topic quietly discussed in the private confines of rabbis’ offices, is now something widely debated in the American Jewish community.
How We Got Here
Jewish people have been persecuted for millennia. But anti-Semitic incidents in the United States have increased dramatically in recent years. And as life has become more dangerous for Jewish Americans over the last decade ― especially in the two years since Donald Trump was elected president ― synagogues and other Jewish establishments have struggled to define what “preparedness” should look like.
In 2006, I worked at Gratz College, a school of Jewish studies outside Philadelphia whose open campus housed several Jewish agencies, including a day school. Impressively unqualified, and inspired by a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ report that called anti-Semitic incidents a “serious problem” on college campuses throughout the nation, I declared myself Gratz’s director of institutional security, attended training with the Philadelphia anti-terrorism chief, and put in place some new security features, including a video surveillance system.
It’s hard to remember now, but at the time, just half a decade after the 9/11 attacks, the word “terrorism” was more often than not a euphemism for a very specific type of violence — the al Qaeda and al Qaeda-inspired kind. At the time, Jewish organizations, and most Americans, weren’t particularly focused on the threat of wannabe Nazis and other domestic terrorists.
The election of Barack Obama changed all that. White supremacists, enraged and threatened by the emergence of the first black president, revived a disingenuous, if not quite buried, decades-old narrative: Jews, immigrants of color and minorities would take the country from a helpless white majority. By 2012, anti-Semitic incidents perpetuated by neo-Nazis, skinheads, white supremacists and white nationalist sympathizers outpaced those of decentralized jihadis.
Then Trump ran — and won, with the Republican Party running an anti-Semitic ad as part of his closing message. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise when he said there “were very fine people on both sides” of a 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where one woman was killed while protesting against racism.
For the first time in decades, the president of the United States had poured rocket fuel onto simmering, anti-Semitic embers. Trump’s words normalized the white men marching through the streets with tiki torches, chanting, “Jews will not replace us.”
Incidents against the Jewish community increased 57 percent from 2016 to 2017, the largest uptick in 20 years and the largest single-year increase in history, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
“Rising anger within the right-wing community is, right now, greater that it was, let’s say, a decade ago,” said David Friedman, the vice president of law enforcement and community security at the ADL. “And since Jews are and Jewish institutions are one of the things that the right-wing focuses on, they consider Jews to have a particularly significant role in what they regard [as] — and they used this expression in Charlottesville — ‘taking away their country.’”
How American Jews Have Responded
American Jewish institutions have responded to the rising threat of anti-Semitism in different ways. After the Pittsburgh shooting, my former colleagues at Gratz College immediately participated in a communitywide security meeting that included representatives from the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the Philadelphia Police Department. Gratz held its first active-shooter drill weeks later.
The Jewish Federation of Broward County has been securing its facility for several years, stopping vehicles at a checkpoint and allowing security staff to check visitors’ identification. In some cases, cars have been searched. Visitors and staff encounter locked doors around the perimeter of the building. The organization is currently helping large synagogues and small neighborhood congregations assess their security needs.
The JFBC increased its incident response after the Pittsburgh shooting, adding tabletop exercises and first aid refresher courses. The institution added more immediate response trainings for campus security guards and changed the building layout to accommodate safety retreat zones.
Rabbi Yaakov Saacks, director of the Chai Center, a synagogue in Dix Hills, New York, started securing his facility well before the Tree of Life incident.
“What did it for us was the shooting at Marjory Stoneman,” Saacks said, referring to last year’s mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida. “This was six, eight months before Pittsburgh.”
His infrastructure improvements include video camera upgrades, panic buttons, an access control system and shatterproof windows. Armed guards patrol the preschool.
Should Your Rabbi Pack Heat?
Then there’s the subject of guns. The issue is as divisive within this community as it is the country.
Mel Bernstein, a Jewish owner of Dragonman’s gun shop in Colorado Springs, Colorado, has offered free AR-15s, ammunition and training to local rabbis. He said four of the seven synagogues he approached have taken him up on the offer.
Unarmed congregants are sitting ducks who must “have a tool” to fight back, he argues.
“Let’s say there’s a fire in a synagogue, what to you do? You grab a fire extinguisher. Let’s say somebody comes in and starts shooting everybody. What are you going to grab? You grab your AR-15,” Bernstein told local news channel KOAA 5 in November.
If a neo-Nazi ever wants to bring me down, it’s not going to be as easy as it was in 1942.
Rabbi Yaakov Saacks, director of the Chai Center
Saaks, the Chai Center rabbi, owns a shotgun.
“If a neo-Nazi ever wants to bring me down, it’s not going to be as easy as it was in 1942,” he said.
Many congregants at the the Chai Center disagree with his position — and many other leaders of Jewish organizations in the U.S. have been reluctant to go as far as Saacks has. The JFBC, for example, issued a statement calling for “common sense gun reform” shortly after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, which is in the area.
“There’s also the debate of ‘should civilians within congregations be armed?’ Which we don’t necessarily advocate,” said Michael Balaban, the JFBC president and CEO. The federation does not have a formal position on armed congregants, but Balaban said he would urge synagogues to use trained professionals “rather than civilians.”
With or without guns, an institutional culture of security is no longer optional.
My synagogue is a slightly different place now. The energy is jittery and a wave of gentle anxiety quietly vibrates between the sanctuary pews. Security experts have told me that awareness mitigates fear and knowledge stimulates empowerment. I hope they’re right.