In the aftermath of the deadly Pittsburgh shooting last month, synagogue leaders across the country began reconsidering their security. David Markovich, administrator for Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation in Reston, was among them.
He knew that adding to the already existing security measures — such as bringing in a security consultant to advise the Reform congregation, adding cameras or making other upgrades — would be costly. So, he turned to available grants, first applying for and receiving a $4,500 short-term grant from the Jewish Federations of North America.
Then, the synagogue began receiving threatening phone calls, now under investigation by Fairfax County police. The synagogue decided to pay an off-duty police officer to stand guard for a week.
“Most [congregants found] it comforting in relation to the recent events,” Markovich said of the armed police presence. “At this particular moment in time, people [said] makes them feel safe.”
It’s a cost more synagogues are considering. Since the shooting in Pittsburgh, the risk of a violent attack has felt all too real for synagogues, which are increasingly turning to local police departments and private firms.
According to Markovich, neither congregants nor outside advisers (like a specialist from the Fairfax County Police Department who recently reviewed the building) are concerned that the synagogue is vulnerable. Given the recent events, though, he says additional security can’t hurt.
But at a rate of $60 to $80 per hour, the officer is an expensive solution. So, Markovich is now applying for a larger grant from the Department of Homeland Security. He still wants to get a consultant and have a police officer present at events.
“I know [synagogues] that have gotten around $100,000 [from DHS], so even a margin of that would go a long way,” Markovich said. “I’d like to [have an officer present], but it requires a large investment in security, which is why congregations that aren’t extremely wealthy are looking for these grants.”
Thomas Ruskin, who runs the CMP Group, a private security company, already provides security for a handful of Jewish institutions in the New York City area. Since the Pittsburgh shooting, he said, dozens more have inquired about his services.
“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. We always knew there was anti-Semitism, but we never knew someone would come into a shul in an upscale suburban community and shoot people in their backs.”
Ruskin charges $500-$1,000 for a written threat assessment and security recommendations; the price is deducted off the final cost if Ruskin’s team is hired to provide security.
For more than a decade, the federal government has provided funding to help synagogues bolster their security. The Nonprofit Security Grant Program and a related program run by the Department of Homeland Security have provided a total of 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, which lobbies for the grants. 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, said that a close relationship with local law enforcement can help synagogues be prepared when attacks happen.
He 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,” said Goldenberg, now a senior fellow for the Rutgers University Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience. “Our institutions should not be surrounded by copper tin wire and bars.”
Still, some synagogues are opting for private security on-site. A consortium of 30 Chabad congregations on Long Island hopes to raise $1 million to provide armed guards once a week for a period of three years at an estimated cost of $50 an hour.
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. “The parents have been most concerned about this. … They’d rather be slowed down at the drop-off than not
Other synagogues have opted for volunteer security guards recruited from their own pews. The Community Security Service, a Jewish nonprofit founded in 2007, 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 hundreds its trainees are actively guarding more than 75 Shabbat services on any given week. For a synagogue with 500 member units, CSS asks for a suggested donation of $1,800.
Even if synagogues opt for a paid guard, he said, a community member should accompany them in order to help identify congregants and provide a reassuring face at the door for the people who are supposed to be there.
“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. If their options are a guard or nothing, definitely go with the guard, but you have to give that guard a chance to be successful. That means pairing them with someone from your institution.”
Jared Foretek is a WJW staff writer. Ben Sales writes for JTA News and Features.