Synagogues rethink security after attack

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B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville. “Members are concerned,” said Executive Director Hal Ossman. “It’s horrifying what happened.” File photo.

Corrected 11/2/18

Area synagogues are considering changes to their security procedures as local police departments beef up visibility at houses of worship in the wake of Saturday’s shooting in Pittsburgh that left 11 dead at Tree of Life Synagogue. Meanwhile, the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington is seeking to raise $100,000 for security improvements at local synagogues and Jewish organizations.

For now, the Montgomery County Police Department has promised to increase its visibility around synagogues and other houses of worship, according to Mansfield Kaseman, Montgomery County interfaith community liaison. Metropolitan Police Department spokesperson Alaina Gertz also said that while there’s no known threat to District synagogues, the department will be providing “increased presence” at synagogues in the city.

But in addition to the outside help from local police, some synagogues are rethinking how much security they need and how to deploy it.

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David Markovich, administrator at Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation in Reston, said the Reform
congregation had decided to revisit its security measures following the vandalism of the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia with 19 swastikas Oct. 6. In light of what happened in Pittsburgh, its security committee will be thinking even bigger.

“Everyone’s on heightened alert and reevaluating their security,” Markovich said.

Fairfax Police have had patrol cars on site since the weekend, and Markovich said that was comforting for congregants. But the synagogue will consider expanding the use of a private security company that posts a guard at the building when it hosts the Muslim ADAMS Center on Friday nights and during religious school Sunday mornings.

Markovich said the synagogue would apply for funding from the Federation to either reimburse Fairfax Police for an officer to work overtime at the building or hire private security for Shabbat services. For now, he said he didn’t think there would be interest in hiring armed private security.

In Pittsburgh, the suspect reportedly entered the Tree of Life building armed with an AR-15-style assault rifle and multiple handguns. He wounded two responding police officers before tactical teams took him into custody.
“Within hours, [Montgomery County Police] Chief [Thomas] Manger asked for the commanders of all the districts to be providing added security to all synagogues and Jewish institutions,” Kaseman said. “One synagogue got back to me that they hadn’t seen a patrol car, we put that person directly in contact with the commander and they were out
there shortly.”

Hal Ossman, executive director of B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville, said that the congregation called a meeting of its security committee the day after the shooting. In the past, B’nai Israel had an armed security presence during services, he said.

Asked if that has changed since Saturday’s attack, Ossman declined to answer.

“At some point many years ago, there was a conscientious decision made for them not to be [armed],” he said. “But of course, members are concerned. It’s horrifying what happened.”

Ossman said the congregation hopes to offset any additional security costs through grants and other funding, but ultimately it may have to increase the security fee is charges members.

In 2017, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security gave out more than $25 million in grants for nonprofits to improve their security, with the bulk of the funding going to Jewish organizations.

But in a speech at Monday night’s interfaith service at Adas Israel Congregation, Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington Executive Director Ron Halber said that all levels of government should provide more support.

“We will also demand that all levels of government — federal, state and local — make funding available to help provide for the operating costs for our institutions and their congregations to protect their clientele,” Halber said.

Correction: This article was corrected to say that in the past, B’nai Israel had an armed security presence during services.

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