A year of rising anti-Semitic incidents brings heightened security measures to ensure holiday safety at synagogues in Metro Detroit.
Shari S. Cohen and Stacy Gittleman
Security is not a new issue for Metro Detroit synagogues, schools and other communal buildings. But the coming High Holidays will bring together large segments of the Jewish community at a time when hate crimes are more frequent and lethal.
In October 2018, 11 people were killed and six wounded during Sabbath services at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. One individual was killed and three were wounded this April at the Chabad of Poway in California. And the rise in anti-Semitism has included attacks on Jews and swastikas on synagogues in various parts of the country.
Since these incidents, Gary Sikorski, chief of community-wide security for the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, said, “There is much more of an awareness factor.
Synagogues are much more tuned in, and there is more of a common discussion. This is not only a local but also a national topic among security personnel of Jewish Federations. There is a delicate balance — being neither paranoid nor complacent.”
Sikorski provides security assessments, training and other resources for Detroit-area synagogues, schools, agencies and other facilities. He stresses the importance of training of staff, congregants and the community.
“We would love to have a community of first responders, not just for an active assailant but also other emergencies,” Sikorski said.
He strongly recommends “target hardening” to avoid the threat. This is accomplished by making it more difficult for outsiders to access buildings by using specialized equipment and trained individuals.
“It’s important to have some kind of presence as a deterrent — a person or camera,” Sikorski explained.
Another component is “response capability,” which entails working with local law enforcement. Sikorski maintains strong relationships with local and state police departments, as well as the area Homeland Security office. He says some local congregations have armed guards while others rely on members who have permits for concealed weapons; others focus on different security measures.
Congregation Shaarey Zedek Executive Director Robert Rich said the synagogue has had a very long history of taking proactive measures when it comes to security, dating back to the horrific 1966 shooting of Rabbi Morris Adler during Shabbat services.
Over the last year, Rich said Shaarey Zedek’s security task force has been working closely with the Federation and the Southfield Police Department to better secure doorways, upgrade camera systems, and provide seen and unseen security personnel for Shabbat and High Holiday services. Also, there are laminated instruction cards placed in the aisle pockets of each pew offering simple instructions in case of an emergency or active shooting situation.
“We have been conducting drills with various members of our synagogue, including greeters, ushers and security guards,” Rich said. “Though some members approached us to ask if they could conceal carry, we told them it was unadvisable. (Congregants and guests) need to know there are armed guards, both uniformed and plain clothed, as well as technological enhancements for security. We take this very seriously. When people come into this building to pray, we want them to be able to focus on just that and not worry about their safety.”
Shaarey Zedek’s Rabbi Aaron Starr said, “We are committed to doing our very best to keep our members and those who enter our building safe, while at the same time fulfilling the mitzvah (sacred obligation) of hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests into our home). In so doing, we engage in a number of activities — some overt and some covert — to aid us in our goals of safety and celebration.”
Marty Babayov of Southfield attended an on-site training session held at his synagogue, Ahavat Yisrael in Oak Park, given by Aaron Tobin, a nationally certified Concealed Pistol License (CPL) instructor. Tobin, who attends Congregation Shomer Israel in Oak Park, says he trains many in the Jewish community across the observance spectrum, including rabbis.
Members of Babayov’s synagogue, which caters primarily to Russian immigrant families, expressed concern after recent synagogue shootings. They invited Tobin to talk about gun safety and improving synagogue security, Babayov said.
“There is no blanket policy in our synagogue that allows anyone who has a CPL to carry,” he said. “There are a few members, however, who have had military or police training, who can respond under pressure, who are arming themselves.”
Tobin told those gathered for his talk that a less powerful handgun would be no match if an attacker was armed with an automatic assault rifle.
“I learned that carrying a weapon with so much firepower (above a 9-millimeter) would be too much for me,” Babayov said. “I do not know if I could live with hitting the wrong person and am glad to know there are professionally and militarily trained professionals working as security. Plus, for me, carrying a weapon to shul takes away from the atmosphere of prayer.”
West Bloomfield Township and Oak Park have multiple synagogues.
West Bloomfield Police Chief Mike Patton says, “Every time there is an event, there is an elevated concern. We have contact with Jewish institutions and houses of worship. We assign officers to those that want them (during services). They reimburse the township, but we also provide some township patrols. Cost is not a concern. We want peace of mind for those who attend.”
Oak Park’s Chief of Public Safety Mike Pinkerton says the Jewish community is good about letting the department know the dates and times of High Holiday services. That enables their road patrols to be aware of extra people walking to services and homes at different hours. They provide some additional patrols in those areas.
West Bloomfield Township’s Public Safety Department has an officer assigned to an area anti-terrorist task force that monitors communication media for active threats. Like Sikorski, Patton stresses the importance of “hardening the target,” including safeguards for “how you meet and greet and vet people coming into the facility.”
Sikorski helps local Jewish congregations and agencies apply for federal and state grants to cover some of the cost of security personnel and equipment. (Temple Beth El and Congregation Beth Shalom are two of the local congregations that have received such grants.)
Individual synagogues and temples are taking different approaches to security, only some of which they are willing to discuss publicly.
Many congregations require High Holiday attendees to present tickets and parking passes mailed in advance; the parking passes are displayed on car windshields for easy identification by security guards. Guards, including some off-duty local police officers, have been common at area congregations for years, in part to help with traffic, but now they focus as much or more on security — ensuring that those entering parking lots and buildings belong there.
At Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park, Rabbi Robert Gamer says the synagogue has always had security for the holidays led by a retired police officer who has been a member of the congregation.
“He has had a team that patrols the building. We have, after the Pittsburgh shooting, added additional security personnel who are there every week of the year and will be there in addition for the High Holidays.”
Anxiety Rises for Some
Anecdotally, the recent mass shootings in synagogues and at other sites have increased anxiety levels for some individuals. Some are fearful in any large group event while others feel particularly vulnerable in synagogues.
Visible security measures are reassuring to some while discomforting to others. A Temple Israel member recently attended services at a synagogue in Columbus, Ohio, where multiple police vehicles were parked with flashing lights. She says she is somewhat afraid about going to services but will attend anyway.
At many synagogues, including Shaarey Zedek, Temple Israel, Temple Beth El, Congregation B’nai Moshe and Temple Shir Shalom, services for Shabbat and the High Holidays are streamed live online, providing an option for those who are unable or anxious about attending in person.
“I have not heard from members that they are concerned or worried about attending services at Beth Shalom specifically,” Gamer said. “There may be general concerns given the number of houses of worship that have been attacked in all religions. No one has said, ‘I don’t feel comfortable coming to shul.’”
As one West Bloomfield resident puts it, “If we don’t go to services, then they’ve won.”