As families, communities and the nation continue to mourn the 11 victims of the horrific shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, leaders of Jewish institutions began to confront what might be a new era for the security demands of shuls and schools in America. Hamodia spoke with representatives of Agudath Israel of America to gauge the steps being taken by communities and advocacy groups.
“Unfortunately, it usually takes something horrible like this to serve as a wake-up call for us to do what we can to make sure that our shuls and schools are safe,” Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel, told Hamodia.
In the wake of the shooting, local police, the Department of Homeland Security and other law-enforcement agencies have held meetings with Jewish groups to discuss options for raising safety standards at institutions. For some time now, various government agencies have offered to make security assessments for high-risk sites to help develop plans that are custom-made for the needs and capabilities of each facility.
Rabbi Zwiebel said that the events in Pittsburgh have definitely raised “a greater sensitivity to the issue” both on the part of the Jewish community and law enforcement alike.
“For those that haven’t gotten an assessment, now is certainly a good time to do so,” he said.
Just as different buildings require different steps to make them secure, different cities have equally disparate requirements.
While smaller communities with a few central schools allow for a more concentrated focus, areas like Boro Park, Flatbush, Williamsburg, Monsey, Lakewood and the like — with hundreds of such structures — present a far different challenge.
“The NYPD told us that the most effective way to deal with this is to patrol, so even here their experience shows them that more patrolmen on the streets should help,” said Rabbi Zwiebel. “It’s something we have to press for, not only on High Holidays, when they have come out in force for some time, and not only on Shabbosim either. To the extent that our shuls have become targets of haters, we need to put pressure for more police in our neighborhoods, and not just the day after an attack or on Rosh Hashanah.”
In many communities in Europe, precautionary security procedures and heavily armed police are now de rigueur, since several fatal attacks have shaken communities in a number of countries. In recent years, rising threats have led to increased federal — and, in some areas, state — funding to protect private schools and houses of worship in America. As a result, many institutions have raised security standards, yet in many communities the “casual feel” has remained.
Rabbi A.D. Motzen, Agudah’s national director of state relations, said that since the shooting this past Shabbos he has been in contact with askanim and Rabbanim from several communities around the country and was attempting to advise on how to proceed in their efforts to raise security standards while preserving their character.
“Overall what I am hearing is that institutions want to make sure they are striking a balance between keeping their students or congregants safe and still being open and friendly places to be, which is no simple feat,” he told Hamodia.
Rabbi Yitz Frank, Ohio executive director for Agudath Israel, said that Jewish institutions in Cleveland had been placing an emphasis on security for some time, mostly with the assistance of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, which has a special division to consult with schools and shuls on these matters. Yet in recent days, a series of meetings with law enforcement officials and leaders of shuls and schools were held as communities sought to close existing gaps.
“They want to make sure that their buildings are as secure as they can be and to address the vulnerabilities that they identify. The Federation has helped a lot to train shuls and schools in the best emergency practices, which can really save lives,” Rabbi Frank told Hamodia. “There are a lot of resources out there and we want to make sure that schools and shuls know what’s out there.”
For several years, Agudath Israel and other organizations have been at the forefront of efforts to procure government grants and allocations for the security needs of Jewish institutions on both the federal and state level with some level of success.
Rabbi Motzen said that the shooting will likely be an impetus to advocate for new, higher allocations. “Elected officials have already reached out to me and state directors to discuss what more we could do. They open the newspaper and don’t want to see the same type of thing happen in their districts to their constituents, chas v’shalom.
“Of course, we will keep pushing for more, but we also need to do more to educate institutions about the funds that exist. In some cases, there’s money left on the table just because people don’t know that grants exist or how to apply for them,” he said.
As mass shootings have become an all-too-familiar event in America, many organizations have focused on other measures that some feel are contributing factors, including the increasing phenomenon of online hate speech. Rabbi Zweibel said that discussions are being held as to whether Agudath Israel would put efforts into advocating for stricter laws against hate crimes and stronger monitoring of violent anti-Semitic speech on the internet, in addition to continued efforts to push for additional funding.
“As believing Jews, our first responsibility is of course to turn to Hakadosh Baruch Hu and to daven. But that does not take away from our obligation to make our hishtadlus,” he said. “It says in Tehillim that if Hashem will not guard the city, then the guards are in vain, but you’re still supposed to hire a guard.”