Rabbis in the Washington area are grappling with finding balance as they try to increase security in their synagogues following the hostage situation in Colleyville, Texas, last month.
It was Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker himself who welcomed Malik Faisal Akram into Congregation Beth Israel. Cytron-Walker thought Akram needed help, and even offered him tea before Akram drew his gun during a Shabbat service.
This frightening scenario has caused many Jews to reconsider how welcoming and open their synagogues should be toward unknown visitors.
Rabbi Amy Schwartzman, of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, said some in her congregation would like to create a fortress of sorts around their building with fences and other means. Others are more drawn to Cytron-Walker’s method of dealing with outsiders.
“The question of how we hold on to our values and our mission while keeping everybody safe is definitely very difficult,” Schwartzman said during a webinar hosted by The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and Security Community Network, the safety and security organization of the Jewish community in North America. “It also requires a lot of listening and study. I think we’re gifted with a tremendous tradition that gives us a platform for conversation that allows different issues to rise up and be clarified.”
In the current climate of antisemitism, Schwartzman said she also believes it’s important that congregations be transparent with their members “to an appropriate degree” and make it clear why they’ve made the decisions they’ve made about any of these given things.
“I’d like to think that our members also have a place to bring their concerns, that we validate their ideas by doing a lot of listening, and engaging them in conversation and study,” Schwartzman said.
Michael Masters, national director and CEO of SCN, said there is always a way to be safe and secure while being welcoming and open. He added that situations and conversations vary from institution to institution.
Cytron-Walker made the decision to let Akram into the synagogue.
“I don’t think that any of us can underestimate the impact that engagement had [on the situation] and the relationship that was formed over the next 11 hours,” Masters said.
Masters said it is important that the training offered by SCN is not based on appearance, but based on behavioral indicators and things that can be validated with science. This way, he said, someone can tell the difference between a person who is possibly having a mental health issue or crisis and someone who is intent on violence.
“I think when you do that, you can create that environment that is welcoming and open, but also is safe and secured,” Masters said. “If people are sitting there feeling insecure when they’re in the building because there wasn’t adequate security on the outside of the building, that doesn’t help us either.”
SCN regional security adviser Robert Graves said he encourages synagogues to always engage with anyone who comes to their house of worship.
“Whether it’s your friend that you see all the time or someone you’ve never seen before, you’re going to have that moment of human engagement,” Graves said. “And if you have a reason for concern, that’s where you’re alerted. Or perhaps you’ll just make a new friend.”