Local Chabad leaders are looking closely at bulking up security measures, including the hiring of armed guards for Shabbat services and special events, following last weekend’s shooting in Poway, California, the second deadly anti-Semitic attack in an American synagogue in the past six months.
“This one, personally, hit home more than the others,” said Rabbi Raleigh Resnick of Chabad of the Tri-Valley, referring to the Tree of Life synagogue shooting last October in Pittsburgh and the 2008 terrorist attacks on a Chabad house in Mumbai, India. “We’re in Pleasanton, in small suburban America, just like Poway. The sentiment resonated very much.”
Poway is a San Diego suburb with a population of about 50,000.
Resnick said he received “calls and emails nonstop” from community members, many of whom saw themselves in the Poway victims.
Resnick said that Lori Gilbert Kaye, who died in the shooting, “had just come to [Poway Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein’s] daughter’s wedding. That’s a very Chabad thing. In Chabad, everyone is invited to the rabbi’s kids’ weddings,” he said. “It’s a familiar experience.”
On Saturday, April 27, exactly six months after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting that claimed 11 lives, a 19-year-old avowed white supremacist named John Earnest opened fire inside Chabad of Poway, killing one and injuring three during Shabbat services. Prior to the attack, Earnest posted a “manifesto” on the internet that expressed hatred for Jews and Muslims.
Security considerations at local synagogues are not new — even before the Pittsburgh attack, a number of local institutions applied for and received grants from the Department of Homeland Security’s Nonprofit Security Grant Program for “target hardening” equipment like security cameras and fortified glass in street-facing windows. Seven Bay Area schools, synagogues and Jewish institutions received over $400,000 from the program last fiscal year. Gov. Gavin Newsom pledged Monday to add $15 million to his proposed state budget to increase building security at nonprofits, such as houses of worship.
Post-Pittsburgh, Rafael Brinner, security director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, visited 22 local synagogues and JCCs to conduct “vulnerability assessments” and help them plan for the unthinkable. Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco has enrolled staff in active-shooter trainings.
But after Poway, local Chabad leaders are hearing fresh calls from their congregants to ramp up security measures, including more requests for armed security at services and other events.
“The community is demanding it,” said Rabbi Yosef Levin of Chabad of Greater South Bay. “It’s not just that it’s Chabad this time. It’s the fact that another synagogue was hit within such a short time.”
Incidents of anti-Semitism and acts of white-supremacist violence have been on the rise in recent years, according to the Anti-Defamation League and human rights groups, punctuated by the Pittsburgh shootings and the recent deadly attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, which the Poway gunman said were inspirations. On April 30, the ADL released a new report showing that anti-Semitic assaults more than doubled last year, with 59 individuals targeted in 39 attacks during 2018, and were coupled with “near-historic” levels of anti-Semitic incidents overall.
Hate crimes are on the rise in California, too, according to the state attorney general’s office. In 2017, there were 1,093 reported hate crimes, a 17 percent increase from the previous year.
In the face of a rising threat, armed guards are not the only solution to minimize harm, security experts say. Brinner, who has been a terrorism analyst with the U.S. intelligence community and the FBI, outlined a number of other safety strategies in an April 29 email. Among his recommendations are managed access to facilities so that everyone entering is met by a staff member or greeter; reviewing emergency procedures to streamline evacuations; conducting mid-service fire drills, and having local law enforcement officers assess a site’s “security profile.” These are in addition to the target-hardening measures funded by state and federal grants.
Brinner said the decision to hire armed security guards — which raises practical, social and spiritual questions for leaders and congregants — is specific to each institution and should be based on their needs and values.
“There are important questions that every institution needs to consider,” he said. “They range from budgetary considerations, to what the culture of the synagogue is.”
It also depends on “whether they want their congregants to be walking past men with guns on their way in or not,” he said.
Navigating these questions is vitally important to Beth Singer, co-senior rabbi at Congregation Emanu-El. The synagogue has some of the toughest security protocols in the Bay Area, with double gates, mandatory bag checks and a guard sitting in a security booth at all times. But while Emanu-El adds “extra measures” during Shabbat and High Holidays, Singer said she couldn’t get into the specifics of those measures, as much as she wanted to.
“The whole question of whether you put armed guards out front is so complicated,” she said.
Singer said that Emanu-El wants to be as welcoming as possible, but that armed guards could be a deterrent for congregants. She said other issues also must be taken into account, such as the impact of armed security on congregants of color.
“You have to be very careful when you have weapons, and people’s implicit bias,” she said. “We have to weigh every factor. We have to promise our congregants we are keeping them safe when they gather. Ideally, if there wasn’t the threat of violence, our doors would be open all the time.”
As for the expense of hiring security — an obstacle cited by Poway’s Rabbi Goldstein as to why his congregation had no security guard present — a new federal government initiative may help. For the first time this year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will allow funds from its Nonprofit Security Grant Program to be put toward hiring armed security guards. DHS announced the new initiative in a statement updated April 25.
For Rabbi Resnick of Tri-Valley, the expense is just one consideration. He finds himself wrestling with an even greater problem.
“That is secondary to having to come to the realization that this is where we’re at,” he said. “The question that everyone is struggling with right now: Is this a reality that we have to face?”
Resnick said he’s experiencing a “paradigm shift” that is shared by a growing number of religious leaders, both Jewish and non-Jewish. The United States has for decades served as a powerful, distinct symbol of religious freedom.
“People have to walk through metal detectors in Europe and Israel,” Resnick said. “We always felt ourselves to be different in this country.”
Rabbi Levin shares that view.
“There’s a very strong sense that the U.S. is supposed to be a place where we can be free to worship, free to be Jews,” he said. “We feel a great sense of loss.”
Levin, who is hosting a May 3 Solidarity Shabbat and dinner at Chabad of Greater South Bay, said he is hoping to raise $50,000 to finance armed security at Chabad centers, and that many congregants have already stepped forward to contribute. And with help from security expert Brinner, they’ve also applied for a Homeland Security grant to add safety features at a new Chabad center. The national organization is involved in the fundraising efforts, he said.
Moving forward, local Chabad leaders are eager to follow through with a plea issued by Goldstein shortly after emerging from surgery. In a video posted to YouTube and viewed over 100,000 times, Goldstein sits in a hospital gown, with blue casts on both hands after being shot during the attack.
“Just like the [late Chabad Rebbe Menachem Schneerson] taught us, we are going to do something positive,” he says. “This weekend, go to your own respective synagogues. Fill up the ballrooms, fill up the sanctuaries.” His voice filling with emotion, he continues, “Let them see that nothing will take us down.”
Resnick conveyed that message to the scores of people who have been calling and texting him. “Even if we have to arm our centers, in no way will this be a sign of weakness,” he told J. “If we have 500 people coming Saturday, that’s the greatest response. The answer and response has to be growth.”