Detroit Jews need to balance security concerns with an open and welcoming culture.
Jackie Headapohl Managing Editor
Jewish America may have changed on Saturday, Oct. 27, when 11 worshippers were gunned down at a Pittsburgh synagogue, but the perspective of the Security Department of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit is the same as it was the day before the horrific attack.
“Our recommendations are still the same,” said Gary Sikorski, director of community-wide security. “You should practice vigilance and you should be aware of your surroundings. Target hardening (strengthening of a building’s security), access control, security cameras — these are things that we recommend all the time, not just in reaction to something like Pittsburgh.”
Detroit is one of the earliest federations to have a full-time security director and has one of the more robust security programs in the country. Sikorski helped train Brad Orsini, the Federation security director in Pittsburgh, spending a day with him last year when he was new to the job. The network of federation security professionals, the Community Secure Network, is constantly sharing best practices with one another, he added.
A team of eight full-time employees oversees security at the local day schools, Camp Tamarack, the Jewish Community Center and United Jewish Foundation-owned properties. It does not provide direct security for synagogues and temples. However, it does act as a resource, providing training and advising them on security concerns or grant opportunities.
“We work hand in hand,” Sikorski said.
For example, last week, with help from Federation, the Yeshiva Beth Yehudah schools, Yeshivas Darchei Torah and Frankel Jewish Academy received grant money from the Michigan State Police School Safety Grant program for improving safety measures.
Local Law Enforcement
The Federation enjoys a good relationship with law enforcement. “We’re wired in with state, local and federal law enforcement and share information, best practices and training opportunities,” Sikorski said.
The relationship between law enforcement and the Jewish community, in general, in this area is very strong, according to Federation COO Steve Ingber.
“On Oct. 27, we were in touch with FBI and Homeland Security,” he said. “We heard from many of the local sheriffs and police chiefs asking us if we needed anything. Law enforcement was immediately able to patrol more throughout our community that day.”
Added Scott Kaufman, Federation CEO, “The local municipalities are very willing to step up. In the near term, anyway, you’re going to see a different presence than normal.”
Sikorski suggests a layered approach to synagogue security, such as target hardening, access control and security cameras. “A lot more people are considering the inconvenience of having access control,” he said. “In the past, they weren’t too keen on the idea of having that interruption upon entry. But there are many different ways to employ these security measures.”
For example, an “active” access control system would mean that a person would need to choose to let each person in. A “passive” system would leave the door open but allow someone to immediately lock it if they saw somebody threatening approach. “There are a lot of options,” Sikorski said.
He says more synagogues are considering armed guards as well. “But that should be part of a layered system,” he said. “If you have just an armed guard, you’re expecting him to win a gun fight. What if he doesn’t? If you have these other measures in place, you’re hoping to avoid the gunfight in the first place.”
Speaking of guns, does Sikorski think more people are carrying weapons at shul?
“That is up to the individual synagogues,” he said. “Under Michigan law, people need to get permission from the director of the synagogue in order to carry legally in a house of worship.”
“What we can’t lose sight of,” Sikorski said, “is that synagogues are built to be welcoming places.”
Security concerns were an unexpected consequence of the Solidarity Shabbat planned for Nov. 2-3. People from across the country were encouraged to flood local synagogues on Shabbat to show support for the Pittsburgh Jewish community.
“We asked thousands of people to show up at synagogues, which could expect to see an influx of people, both Jewish and non-Jewish, they might not know. That caused some anxiety,” Kaufman said.
“Security’s important, but, at the same time, we have to be extremely careful that we don’t let fear inherently change our strong Jewish culture,” Kaufman added. “That’s some of the point of the Solidarity Shabbat. Ultimately, I think, it would be a real tragedy if fear kept us from celebrating and worshiping and being proud of who we are in public.”
Still, “we have to stay smart,” Sikorski said, adding that Federation expected an increased law enforcement presence either patrolling or stationed at most synagogues during last weekend.
Sikorski added, “Our strength lies in the resiliency of the community, not necessarily in what Federation provides or what the synagogue itself provides, but just the resiliency of the community in general.”
Added Kaufman: “I’m proud of our community. It’s been very unified in dealing with this.”