Defending our synagogues

First responders surround the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa., where a shooter opened fire Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)


“All my life I’ve known that the risk of fatal attacks on the Jewish people is among the highest in the world. This has also been the reality of generations before. I’m proud to be Jewish and I’m proud of Israel. I will not live in fear and cut myself off from the community. I will continue to be a proud Jewish woman and I will continue to be inclusive of those around me regardless of what they look like, to whom they pray, or whom they love. Am israel chai!” (LeeOr, October 28, 2018)


By Gideon

 Almost immediately after the attack on the Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh, Jewish and Israeli-American chat groups began questioning the security measures in their own synagogues and social gathering places. The feedback that I received (including from security experts) was that security is lacking and that in many places it doesn’t exist.

There were signs that an attack on a Jewish institution in the US was a matter of time. These warnings were visible to all. Some of them are listed below. Yet, prior to the attack, in many Jewish institutions, the primary security measure was a cell phone to place an emergency call to the police during an active shooting event.

Prior to the attack, some Jewish organizations took it more seriously than others. These institutions hired armed security services to protect their buildings when in session. However, in general, many synagogues lacked protection either because they couldn’t afford it, or because they felt that it wasn’t needed.

The community Security Initiative is one example of how Jews in America were actively preparing for a potential attack. However, as a whole, American Jewish institutions were as vulnerable to a mass murderer as American schools and universities.

The community Security Initiative

“Given the rising threat of terrorism, every Jewish school, synagogue, summer camp and organization is a potential target. Within all of these institutions are people—many of them children—that we need to protect. Thanks to Federation’s CSI, we can.

Launched in 2012, CSI was created to serve as a single point of contact for critical incident coordination, information and intelligence sharing, safety and security training and resources for all of Jewish Los Angeles. Since then, we have compiled a database linking hundreds of Jewish sites, visited over 266 synagogues, schools and other institutions, trained over 2,000 people in safety and security awareness.

CSI links your institution to a network of Jewish communal organizations, and gives you unprecedented access to federal, state and local emergency services. Being a part of this network helps ensure that if a threat arises for any one location, we are all prepared.” (The Jewish federeation of Greater Los Angeles website)

American Jews have been warned about possible anti-semitic attacks:

Warning #1: Decemeber 14, 2016

“It’s an anxiety that no longer belongs to the realm of paranoia, assuming it ever did: Is it only a matter of time before an Orlando- or Charleston-scale atrocity takes place at an American synagogue or Jewish school?

There have been several ideologically driven attacks on American Jewish communal institutions in the past decade: A gunman killed one person after using a hostage to gain access to the offices of the Seattle Jewish Federation in 2006; three people were murdered when a 73-year-old member of white extremist terror group opened fire on a Jewish senior home in Kansas City in 2014; and an aging Nazi sympathizer shot and killed a guard at Washington’s Holocaust Museum in 2009. But the emergence of ISIS, along with the seemingly growing profile of white nationalist leaders and groups, represents a potentially new impetus for attacks on American Jews. A string of violent incidents targeting Jews in other parts of the world, like the massacre at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012 and a Kosher supermarket in Paris last year, add to the importance of assessing where anti-Jewish violence in the U.S. could come from, and what form those threats could take.” (Tablet Magazin, Armin Rosen, Decemeber 14, 2016)

Warning #2: April 23, 2017

“The number of anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. skyrocketed by 86% in the first three months of the year, according to a new report released Monday by a prominent Jewish civil rights organization.

The Anti-Defamation League’s audit of anti-Semitic events counted 541 anti-Semitic attacks and threats against Americans in the first quarter of the year, a dramatic increase over the same period last year.

The incidents followed an overall 34% increase in anti-Semitic assaults, vandalism and harassment last year when compared with 2015, according to the report.

The surge in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States came against an overall drop in such incidents worldwide, according to a report issued Sunday by the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry at Tel Aviv University.” (LA Times ,Jaweed Kaleem, April 23, 2017)

Warning #3: November 2, 2017

“The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) says in its latest “Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents” that the number of assaults, acts of vandalism and violence against Jewish institutions between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30 totaled 1,299, compared to 779 over the same time last year. The 1,299 figure surpasses the total for all of 2016, which stood at 1,266, the group said.

The group also said the number of incidents spiked after clashes between white supremacists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned deadly in August.” (CBS NEWS, November 2, 2017)

Warning #4: January 2, 2018

“Presenting the Anti Defamation League’s annual report on antisemitism to a Knesset committee on Monday, the group’s CEO in Israel stressed that the recorded surge in antisemitism does not present the whole picture, since many incidents are not reported.

…Nuriel noted that of the incidents reported, there has been a disturbingly high number of antisemitic bullying and vandalism incidents in schools and college campuses across the US. Incidents in K-12 grade schools in 2017 more than doubled over the same period in 2016 (269, up from 130). On college campuses, a total of 118 antisemitic incidents were reported in the first three quarters of 2017, compared to 74 in the same period of 2016 – an increase of 59%.” (Jerusalem Post, Tamara Ziev, January 2, 2018)

Warning #5: February 27, 2018

“Anti-Semitic incidents in the US surged nearly 60 per cent in 2017 – the largest increase of any year on record, according to a new report. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a nonprofit dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism, documented 1,986 such incidents across the US last year. The number marked an increase of 57 per cent since 2016 – the largest single-year increase since the ADL started collecting data in 1979.

… The report noted a marked rise in the number of incidents at elementary and high schools over the past two years. More than 450 incidents were reported at K-12 schools in 2017, and 204 incidents were documented on university campuses. Among other things, the incidents included vandalism with swastikas and phrases like ‘Hitler was not wrong,’ and ‘Kill all Jews.'” (Independent, Emily Shugerman, 27 February 2018).

September, 2018

“Synagogue massacre follows over 50 anti-Semitic incidents in Pittsburgh in 2018

Ex-FBI community security head, who has been tracking threats, told Jewish Chronicle last month ‘there are groups out there’ that want ‘to see harm to the Jewish community’.

The brutal shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday did not occur in a vacuum. From January until September 2018, over 50 anti-Semitic incidents were reported in Pittsburgh, according to a recent Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle report.

According to the report, the largest number of incidents occurred in Pittsburgh’s heavily Jewish Squirrel Hill neighborhood — the location of the shooting that killed 11 in the Tree of Life Conservative synagogue Saturday — as well as the adjacent Shadyside neighborhood.

Since January, there have been reports of white supremacist flyers posted throughout the city by groups Patriot Front and Identity Evropa.

Former FBI agent Brad Orsini, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s director of Jewish community security, told the Jewish newspaper at the end of September that incidents ranged from graffiti and online bullying, to two potentially anti-Semitic physical assaults.

Orsini, who could not be reached by The Times of Israel for comment Saturday, was hired two years ago by the Jewish Federation. He told the paper that he was tracking threats online with the Law Enforcement Enterprise Portal, which he called a ‘virtual command center run the by the FBI.’

Orsini told the Jewish Chronicle in September that he and his team ‘do threat assessments and determine whether they are viable threats… We determine whether the individual making the threat has the means and the motive to carry it out.’

Also in September, Orsini said that while Pittsburgh Jews are not at a greater risk than other communities, ‘I think it is important for people to realize there are groups out there that would like to see harm to the Jewish community… there are concerns that I have.’” (The Time of Israel, TOSI STAFF, October 28, 2018)

The attack: October 27, 2018

“A man armed with a semiautomatic assault-style rifle stormed the Tree of Life synagogue here  (Pittsburgh) Saturday and shot worshipers during Shabbat services, killing 11 and wounding six in the deadliest attack on Jews in the history of the United States.

The mass shooting targeted members of a synagogue that is an anchor of Pittsburgh’s large and close-knit Jewish community, a massacre that authorities immediately labeled a hate crime as they investigated the suspect’s history of anti-Semitic online screeds.

Law enforcement officials identified the alleged shooter as Robert D. Bowers, 46, a Pittsburgh resident who the FBI said was not previously known to law enforcement. He was charged with 29 counts of federal crimes of violence and firearms offenses, federal prosecutors said late Saturday.” (Washington Post, Kellie B. GormlyAvi Selk Joel Achenbach Mark Berman Alex Horton, October 27 2018

“ADL CEO Jonathan A. Greenblatt released the following statement in response to the horrific and fatal anti-Semitic attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh today.

‘Our hearts break for the families of those killed and injured at the Tree of Life Synagogue, and for the entire Jewish community of Pittsburgh. This is likely the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States. We are actively engaged with law enforcement to support their investigation and call on authorities to investigate this as a hate crime.” (NEW YORKOct. 27, 2018 /PRNewswire)

What Now?

Attacks on Jews did not start yesterday and will not end tomorrow. If Jews are to trust local police departments to be there every time to stop attacks from happening, then they should expect the same results that American schools and universities are getting.

Deterrence by show of force is the most effective way to prevent attacks. Jewish institutions must hire their own armed security services and work in coordination with local police departments to improve protection around them.

It is up to the members of each synagogue to demand it from their leadership. Jews should avoid going to synagogues and other Jewish gathering places that do not provide adequate protection. If enough people do that, synagogues’ leaderships will have no choice but to comply with the wishes of their members.