Like other synagogues around the country, Kol Ami Northern Virginia Reconstructionist Congregation in Arlington has beefed up its security since the October shooting in Pittsburgh that left 11 Jews dead inside the Tree of Life synagogue.
But instead of turning to Fairfax police for off-duty officers, or a Jewish volunteer group like Community Security Service, they’ve brought on a private security firm owned and operated by Muslims who typically stand guard at area mosques.
First hired by the congregation to protect an interfaith service held at its building, Homeland Security Services will serve as the synagogue’s go-to protective services for events that might attract significant attention, said Herb Levy, Kol Ami’s community coordinator.
“Frankly, I think there’s something beautifully poetic about Muslims protecting Jews,” Levy said. “In the world we live in, it’s something of a point of pride for us.”
Kol Ami’s entire outlook on security changed after the Pittsburgh attack, Levy said. But before they could think about new procedures, they needed assistance immediately.
The congregation was planning to take part in the Jewish Federations of North America’s “Show up for
Shabbat” event, and they knew it would attract a crowd. Once they realized they would want to have security there, the deadline for requesting off duty officers from Fairfax County police had passed.
Synagogue leaders knew that the Moroccan American Community Organization (MACO), which meets in the same Unitarian Universalist Church building as Kol Ami, had been using security during Ramadan, so they reached out and were connected with Abdelillah Bridigi from Homeland Security Services, who said the firm would provide an armed guard to stand near the sole entrance.
Then, on Nov. 24, when Kol Ami organized a “Gratitude Service” with MACO, the Insight Meditation Community of Washington and the church, the congregation again turned to Bridigi.
Kol Ami President Debra Linick said they always knew that Muslim groups in the area had to be proactive about security, but that the assistance from the MACO has been a reminder that the issue has been front and center for the Muslim community for some time. According to the FBI, Jews and Muslims are consistently the most targeted religious groups for hate crimes.
Congregants, Levy and Linick said, are more than happy to make security an
“[The Pittsburgh shooting] definitely engendered a conversation about making sure we’re all safe, but no one of our partners turned away from us or expressed fear,” Linick said. “They expressed a deep conviction that we all want to do what we can to keep each other safe,” added Linick. “In that moment we felt the embrace.”
The armed guard is a departure from the congregation’s previous philosophy, according to Levy. Even after a gunman killed 26 people at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in 2017, the
congregation didn’t consider adding armed security.
“The Pittsburgh incident has splashed a lot of ice cold water on all of our faces,” Levy said.
The congregation also received a $2,500 grant from Jewish Federations of North America to upgrade locks, doors and security cameras.
“We don’t want to become a fortress, we are an extremely welcoming congregation, but we’ve had to balance that against the possibilities,” Levy said. “The warmth of our congregation hasn’t dissipated, we’ve just been forced to think about some things.”