Area synagogues and Jewish institutions had already beefed up security measures before the Oct. 27 shooting at Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh that left 11 worshipers dead. But in the wake of the attack, the local community is searching for additional steps it can take to enhance security measures while preserving an atmosphere of welcome and comfort for members.
“The congregation is of two minds,” said Rabbi Robert Wolkoff of Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick. “Having seen the horrors of Pittsburgh and all these other shootings, we obviously want to protect lives. On the other hand, our congregants feel that having an obvious armed presence is intimidating and almost a violation of our sense of religious freedom.”
His synagogue and others are struggling to find the proper balance between making congregants feel safe, and comfortable. The Conservative congregation takes great pride in “maintaining a sense of welcoming,” he said, adding, “I think kneejerk reactions can be extremely counterproductive.”
Like many local synagogues, through the efforts of the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey, B’nai Tikvah received last year a federal grant from the Department of Homeland Security for security upgrades. Wolkoff and representatives from most synagogues contacted by NJJN declined to get into specifics so as not to compromise the security measures.
“The biggest challenge after an event like this is to get people to focus on security and make it a priority,” said federation CEO Keith Krivitzky. “I know the first reaction of many is to get an armed guard and metal detectors, but I’m not sure that’s the most effective, affordable, sustainable response. We are going the route of engaging with law enforcement to encourage them to provide as much presence as possible on an ongoing basis. We are also looking for security upgrades for our synagogues and other partners.”
In addition to securing significant grants and communicating with law enforcement, Krivitzky said they are also working with interfaith communities.
“We are far ahead of other communities in terms of security planning, training, and infrastructure,” he said.
Rabbi Michael Pont of Marlboro Jewish Center said his Conservative congregation received two Homeland Security grants in the last four years.
“We’re doing everything we can to update our security measures,” he said. “Yet we’re doing everything we can to make sure our environment is warm and hospitable, while being safe for everyone.”
Federation held a briefing for representatives of synagogues and other Jewish organizations in Monmouth and Middlesex counties on Nov. 9 to help local leaders “understand precisely what happened in Pittsburgh and what this local Jewish community must learn and do to enhance security awareness and preparedness,” Krivitzky said.
The session, which was not open to the press, was led by a senior official (the individual’s name was withheld by request) with Secure Communities Network, an affiliate of the local federation’s parent organization, Jewish Federations of North America.
Rabbi Marc Kline of the Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls said his Reform congregation “was really ahead of the game” and had “secured our perimeter” through the security grants. However, he believes some measures that have been proposed in the wake of the tragedy in Pittsburgh would be counterproductive.
“I don’t think it does anything for people to see armed security guards,” he said. “We want to provide security, but not in a way that produces panic.”
Moreover, Kline noted that many more churches and mosques have been targets of hate-driven shooting rampages in recent times.
“Sure, there is a rise in anti-Semitism that is of concern, but Pittsburgh wasn’t an isolated case, but really a part of a string of hate crimes against people seen as others,” he said. “There have been people shot at or blown up in nightclubs, restaurants, and parks.
“While I know anti-Semitism is on the rise, I also know ‘anti-everybody’ is on the rise.”
Other Jewish institutions, in addition to places of worship, have ramped up their security efforts in recent years. Rutgers Hillel in New Brunswick also received a Homeland Security grant to “strengthen our hardware,” said executive director Andrew Getraer. “We already have a security guard on duty at all times, bullet-proof film on our windows, and security cameras inside and outside.” And of course, “We are always looking for more ways to ensure our students are safe.”
Rutgers Chabad administrator Rabbi Mendy Carlebach called the response of law enforcement “phenomenal” and said Rutgers Police Chief Kenneth Cop had sent both Chabad and Hillel an email offering to provide any security they felt was needed. Carlebach was also was contacted by state Police Superintendent Patrick Callahan, and a university police car has been parked on College Avenue outside Chabad in recent days.
“We are stepping up security patrols and implementing other measures,” said Carlebach. “Having a visible presence of law enforcement makes people feel better. You can put people outside with machine guns, but if you don’t have a relationship with law enforcement, you’re in trouble.”