Congregants push for heightened security

Members of Congregation Beth Emeth in Herndon build their sukkah in 2018. Members raised $89,000 to increase security in the synagogue. File photo

Synagogue security is as much about assuring congregants as it is stopping the bad guys. Congregation Beth Emeth, in Herndon, is aiming to do both.

After the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh last fall, worried congregants came to Executive Director Melissa Heifetz, asking what measures the Conservative synagogue would be taking in response.
“People came forward,” she said. “They wanted to help us with our security.”

With $89,000 raised through a Facebook fundraiser and an assessment by GovSource, which provides training to public sector organizations, Beth Emeth began what Heifetz called a “massive overhaul of our security infrastructure.”

These changes have included adding outdoor lighting, adding classroom door locks, adding police security on weekends and installing an active shooter response system, which works much like a fire alarm.

The synagogue will conduct active-shooter training sessions for staff and congregants, she said, declining to elaborate.

“The hope is that all of our new security features will not only help reassure us but will actually deter any would-be assailants,” she wrote in the synagogue’s June newsletter.

Synagogue security measures need to go beyond locks and lights, according to a recent panel discussion at Adas Israel Congregation, in Washington.

“We think that security measures are warranted in order to allow Jews to practice in the way they want to practice,” said panelist Vera Krimnus of Community Security Service, which focuses on training community members to spot suspicious behavior and thus avert attacks. “We don’t think buying things fixes the problem, but in the end we think you need to have trained people.”

Andrew Apostolou, security coordinator for Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue, said synagogues should focus on having “competent armed guards” and partner with local law enforcement and emergency responders.

“When you confront the need for security, you are accepting the fact that there are other Americans you need to be protected from,” he said. “The fact is that is a very difficult thing for people to accept.”
One woman asked the panelists how people of color can feel safe in a synagogue, knowing that police target people of color.

“There’s this balancing act of how to make sure the people and things we don’t want in our building don’t come in, but that everyone we do want in our building is there and is welcome,” said Chris Zeilinger, security coordinator for Tifereth Israel Congregation, in Washington.

Others in the audience were concerned about children who roam synagogue halls during services, and could be difficult to locate in an emergency.

Nobody mentioned the cost of improving security. But back at Congregation Beth Emeth, Heifetz said the synagogue needs to look into ways to sustain the heightened security year after year. She said it’s a cost that will pay for itself if the synagogue never needs to use the security features.

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