The cost of synagogue safety


After a mass shooting in a heavily Jewish area shocked the nation, Rabbi Yakov Saacks felt like his Dix Hills congregation was at risk.

So the rabbi installed 17 cameras on the shul’s exterior that can zoom in to read numbers on license plates, and indoor cameras at each entrance. He began covering the windows with Kevlar, at around $800 each. And he hired armed security guards to protect the Hebrew school and Shabbat services.

When the sanctuary is especially crowded — on the High Holy Days, for example — up to three guards patrol the building carrying guns and communicating by radio.

That was after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, nearly nine months ago. Following the attack last month on a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Saacks said he feels vindicated.

 “What can we do? What can we do?” said Saacks of Chabad synagogue the Chai Center. “This doesn’t make me happy. It doesn’t warm your heart. We still try and maintain its openness, but what happened in Pittsburgh can happen anywhere.”

The added measures have changed Saacks’ budget, of course. He estimates that all the physical protections will cost $150,000 in total. That does not include some of the window and camera costs, which he paid for partly out of a $50,000 grant from New York State. The armed guards, contracted from a private security company, cost about $360 per week.

It’s a cost more synagogues are considering after a gunman entered the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh two weeks ago and killed 11 worshippers. Since then, the risk of a violent attack has felt all too real for synagogues.

Thomas Ruskin, who runs a private security company, already provides security for a handful of Jewish institutions in the New York City area. Since the shooting, he says, dozens more have inquired.

“Part of this has to do with the religious organizations’ budgets,” said Ruskin, a former New York police officer who is Jewish. “They’ve never put money aside or had a fund for just this purpose. ... We never really had to worry about this.”

For more than a decade, the federal government has provided funding to help synagogues bolster security. The Nonprofit Security Grant Program and a related program run by the Department of Homeland Security have provided more than $269 million to secure houses of worship and other institutions.

The money has gone largely to Jewish institutions, according to the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center. In addition, in October 2017, New York state announced $25 million in grants to help secure private schools and other nonprofits. Rounds of funding awarded this year in Brooklyn and Long Island went largely to Jewish organizations.

Since 2004, Jewish institutions have received resources and guidance from the Secure Community Network, an organization co-founded by the Jewish Federations of North America that oversees the community’s security needs and liaises with law enforcement. Paul Goldenberg, the network’s former chief, cautioned against turning houses of worship into fortresses, noting that many synagogues in Europe have an intense security presence along with tight restrictions on who can enter and exit.

“Security has come with a tremendous cost to the Jewish community, not only here but abroad,” he said. “Our institutions should not be surrounded by copper tin wire and bars.”

Some synagogues are opting for private security. Union Temple, a Reform synagogue in Brooklyn, decided to increase its security after it was vandalized with anti-Semitic graffiti this month. It has hired a second security guard and is requiring visitors to sign in and show ID. It is also making its windows shatterproof.

“We want to be warm and welcoming, we don’t want to live in a police state, but that’s the line you have to find,” said Union Temple President Beatrice Hanks.

Other synagogues have opted for volunteer security guards recruited from their own pews. The Community Security Service has trained 4,000 volunteer security guards for synagogues, teaching them how to spot and respond to threats. Jason Friedman, its executive director, estimates that 75 trainees are actively guarding their synagogues on any given week.

 “Everyone in the Jewish community is thinking about security now,” said Friedman, who has also received a flurry of inquiries since the Pittsburgh shooting. “That couldn’t be said a few weeks ago.”

Romemu, a Jewish Renewal congregation in Manhattan, has gone all in on security since the shooting. It has tripled its security budget and plans to apply for the state and federal security grants. However, the congregation makes sure its guards dress in business-casual attire, don’t conspicuously show their weapons and greet regulars as an usher would.

“They are not menacing. They are very friendly people,” said executive director Jeff Cahn. “They welcome everybody with a hearty ‘Shabbat shalom’ and know everybody’s names.”

Even without armed guards, Ruskin said, there are basic steps a synagogue should take to secure itself, from locking the doors to having an evacuation plan. If a shooter encounters a locked door — let alone an armed guard — he may decide to go somewhere else.

Many were put off by President Donald Trump’s initial comments on the shooting at the Pittsburgh synagogue, which did not have a guard.

“If they had an armed guard inside, they might have been able to stop him immediately,” Trump told reporters. “Isn’t it a shame that we even have to think of that, inside of a temple or inside a church? But certainly the results might have been far better.”

Those who are hiring the guards see security as a threshold issue.

Rabbi Tuvia Teldon, director of Chabad Lubavitch of Long Island, is spearheading a $1 million campaign to provide armed guards for 30 Chabad congregations on Long Island. After the Pittsburgh shooting, he wants to make sure one of his affiliate synagogues isn’t next.

“They want to know there’s someone there who’s going to be watching out for them,” he said. “You need to have someone there who’s on the ground. We want to put up a sign in every Chabad house that this is not a soft target. There are armed guards here.”