In a sense, the Jewish communal reactions to the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh and the coronavirus pandemic were diametric opposites.
After Robert Bowers shot and killed 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018, American Jews were urged to show up at services in droves the following Shabbat to display solidarity with the victims and to make clear that their rituals and way of life would not be threatened. Conversely, in the early stages of COVID-19, health concerns meant that they were forced to stay home as most in-person prayer was put on hold.
Today, as three years have passed since the Pittsburgh attack and as synagogues navigate the complexities of reopening, these seemingly unrelated events raise the same question: How can synagogues balance necessary precautions with a welcoming approach?
“Since people are so eager to be back in a community together — and so yearning to feel this sense of openness and warmth and welcoming — I’ve tried really hard that to make sure that we’re able to do that while also being attentive to ongoing safety and security matters,” Rabbi Daniel Berman, leader of the Conservative congregation Temple Reyim in Newton, Mass., said.
Offering a hypothetical scenario, Berman explained that congregants may not be as careful about security protocols such as keeping the synagogue doors closed and locked when they are seeing a friend for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
Rabbi David A. Lyon, senior rabbi at the Reform synagogue Congregation Beth Israel in Houston and vice president of the board of the Central Conference of America Rabbis, said the only concerns surrounding the synagogue’s reopening pertained to COVID rather than security. Still, he acknowledged the balancing act that accompanies this “new era” in synagogue security after the Pittsburgh shooting. He shared that when recent visitors to Beth Israel went through standard procedures — they rang the bell, got let in by security, presented their driver’s licenses and put identification stickers on their lapels — one of them turned to him and said, “I guess can get out any door we want, but we can’t get in that easily.”
“Our doors are locked, and they only work one way,” Lyon said. “What does that really mean about the way we’re living and the way we want to grow our Jewish community? It’s a literal thing we’re dealing with, but figuratively, when we think of the synagogue as a place of communal gathering, I’m old enough to remember a day when you just opened the door and walked in. It has changed, and it’s not going back. When we enter synagogues in America, like we would enter synagogues in Europe, we have to call, make arrangements and buzz in.”
Rabbi Elazar Muskin, leader of the Young Israel of Century City (YICC) is Los Angeles and president of the Orthodox movement’s Rabbinical Council of America from 2017 to 2019, recalled that shortly before the Pittsburgh attack the synagogue had been considering decreasing some security expenditures due to a relative “lull” in incidents. But the Tree of Life shooting swiftly served as an “awakening” that underscored the “false sense of security that we had prior to it,” Muskin said. Accordingly, YICC did not reduce any security measures.
The awakening continued into 2019, a year in which the Anti-Defamation League reported a record-high number of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States, including another deadly synagogue shooting in Poway, Calif. Muskin noted that Lori Gilbert Kaye, the 60-year-old woman killed in the attack at Chabad of Poway, was the sister of a YICC member.
“That is a tragedy that still has an impact upon my community,” he said.
Although 2020 saw a slight decline in anti-Semitic incidents, a massive surge in Jew-hatred accompanied the 11-day conflict in May between Israel, Hamas and other terror factions in the Gaza Strip. This included an attack on both YICC and Pat’s, a kosher restaurant next door to the synagogue, in which the vandal broke a window at the eatery but failed to do so at the synagogue because its windows are made of reinforced glass.
In October, the Jewish Federations of North America launched a three-year, $54 million initiative called LiveSecure, geared to ensure that all 146 communities across the country with a Jewish Federation have the Community Security Initiative, which is currently in place at 45 Federations nationwide. The initiative serves as a single point of contact for critical incident coordination, information and intelligence sharing, safety and security training, and resources for every Jewish institution in a community.
“Hatred across the country is on the rise, anti-Semitism is clearly on the rise,” said Muskin. “It’s something we have all have to be concerned about. The Jewish community is always very sensitive to anti-Semitism. We have strong organizations that are outspoken about this. They rally the troops to be outspoken.”
Berman said Temple Reyim’s security protocols changed “dramatically” after Pittsburgh, which “put our community in a different frame of mind. We needed to really shift the way we were thinking about safety and security in our synagogue.”
Temple Reyim began locking its doors during office hours and Shabbat services, whereas previously the doors were only locked when the building was empty at night. The congregation now has a key fob system for community members, while other visitors need to make arrangements ahead of time or speak with the office onsite in order to enter the building.
While the new system marked “a dramatic shift for a community which previously had open doors,” said Berman, the Tree of Life incident left Temple Reyim with no choice but to change its protocols. He said he still grapples with the question of “How do we make sure that we are still loving, welcoming, open, and expressing this desire for people to always feel at home here, with the need to lock our doors?”
Pittsburgh “created out of necessity a time to review” the security procedures at Beth Israel, said Lyon, noting that the synagogue increased visibility and has a Houston police presence on its campus every day.
“We’re fortunate to have a very compatible relationship with Houston Police Department, the local FBI, the local ADL and other agencies. If anything is heard or reported, we learn about it,” he said.
Increased security has the silver lining of adding a layer to the community’s relationship with law enforcement on a cultural level, he said. Lyon recounted that after a police officer once wished him “Shabbat Shalom” on a Friday night, the rabbi told his staff that if the officer ever wished him zei gezunt (Yiddish for “be healthy”), he would fall over. Indeed, one day the officer told the rabbi zei gezunt as he exited the campus.
Three years after the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history, YICC’s Muskin affirmed that the uninterrupted continuation of synagogue life remains a key aspect of the communal response.
“Anti-Semitism is a perennial problem,” said Muskin. “It never went away, and it never is going to go away. We just have to be constantly on alert to it and not allow it to fester. We should never be threatened to a point where we become paralyzed. We were not going to stop after the attack in Pittsburgh. I rallied our members and said, ‘We need to really, really show up.’ Threats to our very existence are not going to be tolerated.”