Are Congregants Carrying Guns at Shul?
Local security policies may vary, but no one is talking about who might be packing at shul.
By Stacy Gittleman
Aaron Tobin does not widely advertise his gun safety and training courses. Since the Pittsburgh shootings Oct. 27, 2018, when a lone gunman killed 11 workshippers, his business, about 95 percent word of mouth, has spiked. He trains many in the Jewish community, including rabbis, how to handle a weapon. After they complete their training, they ask him not to tell anyone they took the course or own a gun.
He has no problem with Jews carrying guns to synagogue; but only if they have been granted permission from rabbis or the board, are highly trained in active-shooter situations and then only if they think they can keep a cool head if the unthinkable arises.
“A gun is like an instrument you must practice on a regular basis,” Tobin cautioned. “If you are not trained for an active-shooter situation, or if you do not know or do not think you are going to react in a calm responsible manner, it is best to leave your gun at home.”
Around the country, many Jews are taking up this conversation about the unthinkable, about being targeted in a space where they should feel safest: the sanctuaries of their synagogues.
While most sources would not give a definitive answer if they are allowing congregants to carry to services — leading to a “don’t ask, don’t tell” climate — the response to the presence of guns in synagogue ranged widely.
While some said they would not mind and would welcome the presence of a gun in the hands of a CPL owner, others adamantly said they did not want any guns in their building or, at the very most, only to be carried by trained and paid professionals.
Though no specific synagogue would disclose, there are some worshipers packing heat in Detroit’s synagogues.
Tobin’s eight-hour training course, given at private locations at a client’s request, is far more thorough than the standard two-hour classes typically given to new gun owners. To Tobin, 57, who attends Congregation Shomer Israel in Oak Park, two hours is not good enough; neither is infrequent practicing.
Safety and responsibility are of the utmost priority for every gun owner, he said.
“People like to say that nice Jewish boys don’t own guns, and I say, ‘Have you been to Israel?’” said the nationally certified Concealed Pistol License (CPL) instructor. “I believe that every Jewish person needs to know how to defend himself or herself. There is a stigma among Jews about owning and carrying a gun.”
Gary Sikorski, who heads the community-wide security department of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, explained that under Michigan state laws it is up to the individual leadership of each house of worship to work out their own policy of allowing congregants to carry.
If a synagogue does allow members or trained professionals to carry, Sikorski said they are not mandated to inform Federation who these people are. But if a synagogue does permit congregants to carry, he advises they should create a well-worded written policy to be signed by the CPL congregant.
Ultimately, Sikorski said best practices include strengthening preventative security measures to avoid a gunfight, such as hardening access to the building and extra surveillance in lobbies and other areas of the building.
“I am aware of synagogues and other houses of worship that allow certain members to carry, but I cannot disclose which ones they are,” Sikorski said. “In most cases, they are retired first responders or law enforcement professionals but, for obvious reasons, a synagogue is not going to widely advertise whether or not they allow it.”
Guns and Halachah
Rabbi Aaron Starr of Congregation Shaarey Zedek of Southfield will be addressing the topic of the permissibility of carrying a gun on Shabbat during a session he will teach at Limmud, an annual community day of Jewish learning on March 31 at the Jewish Community Center (limmudmichigan.org).
On the issue of whether Jewish licensed gun owners should carry a gun to services on Shabbat, he said Michigan state law leaves it up to the individual discrepancy of the clergy or board. Just because a person is a licensed gun owner does not qualify him or her to be a first line of defense in case an attack happens on a Saturday morning, he said.
“We know saving a life supersedes all the laws of Shabbat, and we know that carrying a gun to synagogue may seem like a contradiction,” Starr said, adding that he and his board members have been approached by congregants as to whether they may carry a weapon with them, just as this request is being made at every synagogue in the area, he says.
Starr would not say whether congregants were granted permission to carry, but there are professional security guards in the building at all times.
Rabbi Yechiel Morris of Young Israel of Southfield said there had been a security plan and team in place years before the Pittsburgh shooting. There are a select few congregants who are retired first responders who the congregation board has granted permission to carry. Other than that, he said no one is allowed to enter the synagogue carrying a gun.
“We don’t want some cowboy coming in here causing more harm than good in an emergency situation,” Morris said. “If a person insisted on carrying a weapon, they would have to show documentation they are certified. Though we cannot divulge specifics, we have layers of security in place as we have worked with Gary (Sikorski) as well as the Southfield Police. We are confident in the security plan we have in place.”
As far as keeping phones at one’s side — either completely off or turned on only to be used in emergency, Morris said in the past few months the Orthodox Union and the Young Israel rabbinical council have had conference calls and meetings taking halachah into consideration.
“Halachah can be flexible when it comes to safety and security,” Morris said. “If authorities need to be contacted on Shabbat, we have the means to do so. Unfortunately, [guns and increased anti-Semitism] are the reality we have to live with, but we cannot be scared. You take the necessary security measures, then, you have to live your life.”
Young Israel of Oak Park member Dr. David Ungar believes in the element of surprise when it comes to security. For that reason, he is fine about fellow congregants carrying during services, but only the rabbi should know who is armed.
“If someone is carrying, I would rather not know about it,” said Ungar, whose parents were Holocaust survivors who lived in countries where citizens were not allowed to own weapons. “Having armed uniformed guards adds an expense to the synagogue and it is most likely that they would be the first targets for a shooter.
The only deterrent to a mass shooter would be the element of surprise in the worst scenario. There are people who are dead set to get us, and we cannot put our head in the sand. We have to be prepared.”
Dr. Marc Borovoy of West Bloomfield has been active in formulating The Shul’s security procedures. Though The Shul would not disclose specific security measures or whether they allow members to carry guns, anonymous sources have observed several congregants who wear communications ear pieces during services.
“We take our security efforts very seriously and have vetted our security team,” Borovoy said. “Our diligent security team is prepared to minimize any potential harm that could befall our congregants but, because of that, we cannot fully disclose our procedures.
“In private talks, we have trained and educated congregants and have taken the Federation’s best practice procedures into account to not only secure the synagogue but also other buildings on our campus.”
Temple Shir Shalom Executive Director Brian Fishman said outside of armed, professional security guards in the building during Shabbat services, the temple does not permit members with CPLs to carry guns outside of a few exceptions.
Shir Shalom has hired additional uniformed and plain-clothed security officers and has upgraded its security doors, which are locked at all times except during services.
“My answer is going to be, with extremely limited exceptions [already known to the police] our members are not allowed to carry guns into services,” Fishman said. “If the unthinkable happens and the police arrive, they are going to shoot at anyone holding a gun. This is not a scenario we would like to unfold, and we leave our security in the hands of our trained professionals. To me, it is even a tragedy that we have to have this conversation.”
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