I was shaken by the Pittsburgh massacre, as we all were; nothing like it had occurred in an American synagogue in most of our lifetimes. If we were complacent before Pittsburgh, in its aftermath we are not. Before we had even processed our sorrow, synagogue security, always a concern, became a top agenda item at congregations around the country. How could it not?
Responses at some synagogues have included police or armed plainclothes security. I even heard suggestions that congregants with concealed carry permits be allowed to carry weapons in shul.
But though we are shaken from our complacency, we should be careful not to overreact. The call for armed security is an overreaction. It’s also an ineffective solution. As awful as the Pittsburgh massacre was, it is remarkable in part because such attacks on American synagogues are rare. In the last 60 years, more than 3,000 American synagogues have held more than 10 million Shabbat services. In that time, service-goers were attacked at shul three times: the 1958 bombing of Atlanta’s Hebrew Benevolent Congregation (no casualties), the 1960 attack on Temple Beth Israel in Gadsden, Ala. (2 injuries, no deaths) and Pittsburgh last month.
While overall anti-Semitic incidents appear to be on the rise in recent years, violent attacks like Pittsburgh are not. To the extent that others might have similar designs, like the man arrested in Toledo last week, law enforcement — as the Toledo arrest showed — is already a first line of defense.
Synagogues around the country already have many other security measures in place. Government grants are available to assist houses of worship in improving their security. Both the USCJ and the URJ have resources to assist the congregations with security. There is no need to turn our synagogues into armed camps.
Nor would doing so really increase our security. As the Thousand Oaks shooting showed just 10 days after Pittsburgh, a single security guard carrying a concealed sidearm is a sitting duck for a well-armed terrorist who knows to shoot the guard first and would do so without hesitation or compunction. Any sense of security that such a guard provides is illusory.
Allowing congregants to come to shul armed would be more problematic still. A synagogue is not in a position to vet the mental health or shooting ability of concealed carry permit holders. Shooting at a range is no preparation for responding under the stress of an actual attack, and the risk of innocent victims dying in crossfire from a fellow congregant’s weapon exacerbates rather than diminishes the overall risk. With armed congregants, it becomes difficult for police responding to assess which of the shooters are the good guys.
The Department of Homeland Security guidelines for responding to an active shooter, recognizing these risks, instruct people to flee if possible, to hide if flight is impossible and, only as a last resort, to fight.
We should be vigilant. We should be prudent. But we should not be armed. It is impossible to build a Shabbat of Peace at the OK Corral.
Jeff Silver is on the Board of Trustees and is a past president at Congregation Beth Ahm.