A suspicious-looking person. An unfamiliar vehicle. A conspicuous package. Whatever the unusual occurrence, volunteers at Congregation Tifereth Israel in the District keep an eye out, making sure the synagogue stays secure.
Chris Zeilinger, 60, has led the congregation’s shomrim — Hebrew for “watchers” or “guards” — since the early 2000s when 9/11 changed how American Jews view the safety of their gathering places.
“Everyone in the country was really concerned,” said Zeilinger, a Silver Spring resident. “So, we started at that time with just a bunch of volunteers. We didn’t know exactly what we were doing, but we needed to do something.”
Zeilinger has recruited and trained more than two dozen volunteers who monitor the building on 16th Street during the busiest times of the week — Shabbat services and Sunday religious school. About 50 congregants serve as occasional shomrim.
“We just keep an eye out for things that are not as they should be, watching who’s coming in and out of the building,” Zeilinger said. “We’re not trying to be armed guards or police.”
The shomrim at Tifereth Israel add another level of safety to paid security, which was expanded in 2018 after the Tree of Life Congregation mass shooting in Pittsburgh. Prior to the shooting, Tifereth Israel used paid security just for the high holidays and big events.
Zeilinger said that incidents haven’t risen to a threatening level. “Most of the time, the things or people we see turn out to be totally innocuous, but we’re attentive to details and are glad to have helpful responsiveness from the D.C. police department and good security resources at our fingertips from the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.”
Another resource for the shomrim is Community Security Service, a volunteer security organization for the Jewish community that provides free training and safety programs.
“Most security experts will tell you that the first and foremost thing is to stay visible and vigilant,” Zeilinger said. “Those with malevolent intentions that are casing or eyeing targets, when they see that a place is being watched over, they are likely to look for an easier target. So, we try to be a very unappealing target.”
The volunteer work is meaningful to him. “This is a way that I and my fellow security volunteers can give something with meaning to our shul that helps build community. I find that it’s a way to use interpersonal skills that I have to benefit the congregation. It’s also a way to build rapport with my fellow congregants and engage with one another. I find it fulfilling.”
Zeilinger said that the shomrim stay in close contact with security at Ohev Shalom synagogue across the street. “On those rare occasions where one of us has had an incident that did seem to be a security matter, we make sure the other synagogue knows about it.”
To become a shomer, a volunteer must go through a brief orientation and commit to being at the synagogue doors for a 90-minute stretch. “They must be willing to engage with whoever wants to come into the building.” A cell phone to use in an emergency is also a requirement.
By day, Zeilinger does advocacy and policy work for the nonprofit Community Transportation Association of America. He joined Tifereth Israel in the late 1980s when he was in his mid-20s. “I got involved with a lot of social action programming, serving food at soup kitchens and delivering meals. Then I had the fortune of becoming synagogue president. That was a way of finding more ways to engage with people internal and external in the Tifereth Israel community. So, I’ve been active in a number of fronts.”
Currently he is a member of the synagogue board and serves as the vice president for lifelong learning, overseeing education and youth programs from a volunteer perspective.
As a member of Tifereth Israel’s security committee, Zeilinger was part of the planning for recent security upgrades.
He says that the prevalence of social media has raised the level of awareness of growing antisemitism. “It’s good in its own way. It does mean that we all feel a greater desire than ever to feel safe when we come to shul.”