By Shari S. Cohen
Gary Sikorski, director of community-wide security for the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, may have been the first local person to learn of the shootings at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue.
“The Jewish Federation security directors have a joint platform, the Secure Community Network, and the shooting was communicated within minutes,” he explains. “We have our own internal process of notification of our crisis team to assess the event and its implications.
“Security has always been a priority, but it is a higher priority every year,” Sikorski says. Before joining Federation almost 10 years ago, he had a 26-year law enforcement career, retiring as a deputy police chief.
Security concerns intensified first after 9-11 in 2001, and then after the 2006 shooting at the Seattle Jewish Federation and the mass shootings at Columbine and Sandy Hook schools, he says.
“These were watershed moments in the Jewish community. We took a giant step in 2013 with agencies involved with children — improving training, equipment and security personnel to harden the target,” he explains. “Some security measures are very visible, but a lot are behind the scenes. We are prepared and equipped to handle all situations.”
President Trump suggested that having an armed guard at Tree of Life might have altered the tragic outcome. Sikorski said that it’s “not a bad idea and there are armed personnel working in the Jewish community.” However, he recommends a “layered response” that limits access of unknown individuals to Jewish facilities and provides a way to lock out someone suspicious . “You need to have individuals to vet and greet people coming in.”
Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township has been implementing some of these measures for several years, says Rabbi Mark Miller, senior rabbi. Beth El added friendly, helpful security personnel who open an electronic entry system and greet people entering the building. Special staff training, equipment and security technology were also implemented.
One challenge is maintaining a welcoming environment with adequate safety. “There is a danger of being a fortress,” says Rabbi Aaron Bergman of Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills.
Another critical element is a strong partnership with law enforcement. Sikorski said the FBI and local law enforcement contacted him after the Pittsburgh shootings. “While law enforcement agencies monitor for threats, we need to prepare for the unknown, being resilient. There is more that can be done. The most dangerous thing is denial,” he says, referring to the increase in anti-Semitic activity reported by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).
“There is a lot to be concerned about and a lot to take comfort in but also a need to reassess security,” Sikorski says. Federation is planning to hold internal and community-wide security meetings.
A Sunday Unlike Others
Like any Sunday, services, classes and meetings were held at Detroit-area synagogues and temples on Oct. 28, the day after 11 Jews were murdered by an anti-Semitic gunman in Pittsburgh. But there were noticeable differences.
Rabbi Bergman of Adat Shalom was at the entrance when students and congregants arrived on Sunday.
“Texts were sent to parents and an email to the congregation. Everyone showed up for Hebrew School,” he says. “We are in very close touch will the Farmington Hills police and Federation, and we held a meeting with our executive board.”
At the Bais Chabad Torah Center, the West Bloomfield Police Department provided extra security during Sunday classes and services. Throughout Detroit’s Jewish community, local police departments were more vigilant, and security was a major topic of discussion.
Meanwhile, extensive security for the annual Yeshiva Beth Yehudah fundraising dinner Sunday night was being bolstered with additional resources, according to Sikorski.
This year’s planned speaker was former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and the annual dinner was expected to draw 2,500 members of the Jewish and general communities to Detroit’s Marriot Hotel in the Renaissance Center. Along with the Detroit Police Department, FBI, Marriott and General Motors Security, Scotland Yard was expected to send four agents.
What To Tell Jewish Children
The Pittsburgh shootings raised the issue of what to communicate to students attending classes at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield, along with many local temples and synagogues. Many were exposed to media coverage of the Pittsburgh tragedy and some probably noticed police officers not usually present on their way into classes.
“We decided to provide an opportunity for our students to talk about Pittsburgh if they wanted/need to … but not to bring it up to them specifically,” said Rabbi Mark Miller of Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township. “We believe that parents know their kids best, and each has reasons (especially given the various ages of our students to talk about this — or not — with them). So, we want to respect those choices, and still offer comfort and discussion for those who are ready.”
At Hillel Day School, Steve Freedman, the head of school, sent a letter to all families to discuss ways to offer compassion and empathy as a response to darkness in the world. The school psychologist prepared and sent out support materials for teachers and parents. The psychologist and school rabbi will meet with grades 5-7 and 7-9 as part of morning prayers to put events in a “Jewish perspective.”
Brian Siegel, CEO of the JCC, said Sunday the JCC is finalizing its communcations plan but doesn’t expect that its Pitt Childhood Development Center teachers will discuss Pittsburgh or other related events with their very young students. (The JCC offers day care and classes for infants through kindergarten age.)