A police officer stands guard outside Temple Sinai, a synagogue just a half-mile away from the Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, the site of a mass shooting on Oct. 27, 2018. (Photo/JTA-Jeff Swensen-Getty Images)
A police officer stands guard outside Temple Sinai, a synagogue just a half-mile away from the Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, the site of a mass shooting on Oct. 27, 2018. (Photo/JTA-Jeff Swensen-Getty Images)

The new normal? Bay Area synagogues rethink security

On a recent dry, hot morning in the Santa Clara Valley, tambourine music spills out of the open front doors of a Roman Catholic church. It is Sunday mass at the Church of the Ascension, a mostly Filipino congregation in Saratoga, and through three sets of double-doors splayed open, one can see the hazy blue light from stained-glass windows, a priest backdropped by a towering crucifix, and dozens of worshippers sitting in pews. Some follow along with a hymn, singing “We are the children of God.”

Right next door is Congregation Beth David, a 500-family synagogue with a recently renovated, modern, octagonal building with a stone façade, and a Star of David skylight rotunda. Unlike the church, a sign near the front doors informs visitors that the doors stay locked “at all times.” On that Sunday morning, Ron Ruebusch, a synagogue board member, stands by the entrance, waiting to open the door for arrivals.

“We usually have a security guard,” said Ruebusch, before grabbing a plastic nametag from a drawer. “But not today, because the sheriff will be here.”

The security guard was given the day off because officers from the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department would be on-site for an active-shooter training, the synagogue’s first.

That shuls employ more security than churches or businesses is common knowledge for most American Jews; even in the 1990s, synagogues in large metropolitan areas had a police presence during the High Holidays. Starting in the 2000s, terrorism fears prompted Jewish schools and synagogues to install “targeting-hardening” features like bollards or planters to guard against car bombs.

Synagogue representatives at Congregation Beth David wait to open the front door, which stays locked at all times. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)
Synagogue representatives at Congregation Beth David wait to open the front door, which stays locked at all times. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)

But after a mass shooting nine months ago at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the worst anti-Semitic attack in the country’s history, and an April shooting that killed one and injured three at a Chabad center in Southern California, a precious sense of peace characterizing the Jewish experience in postwar America has been shaken.

Both crimes were committed by men who spewed anti-Semitic vitriol online and used high-powered assault rifles to indiscriminately target Jewish worshippers.

The threat recently has turned up closer to home. Last month, police in Concord arrested Ross Farca, a 23-year-old who threatened Jews on the video game website Steam. Using the screen name “Adolf Hitler (((6 MILLION))),” Farca wrote that he had a semi-automatic weapon that he would convert to a fully automatic “M16” and use to “mow down” Jews.

Police found a home-assembled AR-15-style weapon, more than a dozen high-capacity magazines and Nazi literature in Farca’s home, according to a court filing and photos released by the Concord Police Department. He was charged with three felonies and is scheduled to appear in Superior Court in Martinez on July 30.

Many in the Jewish community were alarmed when, less than a week after his arrest, Farca was released on bail, albeit with a restraining order against handling guns. A number of local synagogues and Jewish nonprofits, many of which asked that they not be named, sent out precautionary emails with Farca’s photo and hired additional security in the days and weeks following his release.

“Although we are an unlikely target, as a precaution, I wanted to circulate an image of Ross Farca,” an executive at a San Francisco Jewish nonprofit wrote in a community-wide email. “If you see this individual onsite, please immediately contact the local police.”

Statistics from the Anti-Defamation League show that since 2016, anti-Semitic incidents in the United States have increased so sharply that for the Jewish community, as well as synagogue administrators and clergy, the change in atmosphere is not one simply of degree, but of kind. Highly publicized white supremacist, neo-Nazi demonstrations like the one in Charlottesville in August 2017 have put Jews on edge.

A fresh sense of urgency to tackling the security issue consumes Bay Area Jewish leaders, who find themselves ramping up ad-hoc security committees (like B’nai Shalom’s “SOS,” or Secure Our Synagogue group), coordinating with local police departments, vying for all forms of local, state and federal security grants and organizing first-aid and active-shooter trainings. Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco recently doubled its budget for security and is consulting with law enforcement experts. Temple Israel in Alameda, which received a $7,000 security grant from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, recently upgraded its security cameras and moved to allow entry by key card only.

Temple administrators who are more used to tasks like fundraising, event planning and managing schedules have had to become conversant in things like bulletproof glass, privacy landscaping and evacuation protocols.

Gordon Gladstone, executive director at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, is also the chairman of BATA, the Bay Area Temple Administrators, a group of nonclergy synagogue leaders. He described the type of security conversations they have at monthly meetings.

“We talk about everything, from the nuts and bolts — ‘What hardware do you have hanging off the side of the building?’ like locks and cameras — to navigating Department of Homeland Security grants,” Gladstone said. “I have members that say, can we talk about something else?”

The active-shooter training at Beth David, called “Run, Hide, Fight,” was a stark example of what Jewish communities — and many others — are facing today. Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek also underwent active-shooter training recently, as did Congregation Emanu-El and others around the country.

Sgt. Jim Post of the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office leads an active shooter training at Congregation Beth David on July 14, 2019. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)
Sgt. Jim Post of the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office leads an active shooter training at Congregation Beth David on July 14, 2019. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)

Sgt. Jim Post, a 20-year veteran of the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, presented a PowerPoint at Beth David to a few dozen mostly retired congregants, many of them elderly, seated in rows in a synagogue activity room. Morning prayer was underway in a chapel across the atrium, where a Kiddush had been set up.

Quick to crack a joke —– “It’s not because I don’t take this seriously, it’s the opposite,” Post said — the officer, who helped develop Santa Clara’s school shooter preparedness protocol after Columbine, said he became determined to educate the public after seeing the carnage of an active-shooter incident himself. In 2011, Post was one of the first on the scene at a deadly shooting at a cement plant in Cupertino that left three dead, an experience he said “changed my life.”

“What you do in those first seconds, those first minutes, is going to determine your outcome during an active-shooter incident,” he said. “You have to have a survivor’s mindset. We have to pre-load our brains with that.”

Allen Rosenzweig, a Beth David member, said he attended the training because “it can’t hurt to have more knowledge. I think this is really important, considering what’s going on in the world.”

In an active-shooter situation, Post explained using his presentation and a rather terrifying instructional video, the first and best option is to run “as far away as you can.” If that’s not feasible, hide in an area that is not visible from a doorway, turn out the lights, lock the door and keep as quiet as possible. As a last resort, be prepared to fight, using improvised weapons, if available.

Post looked around the room. “What are some of the things we could use as weapons in here?” he asked.

“Chairs,” many said.

“Purses and backpacks.”

“The fire extinguisher,” some said.

“I like that one,” Post replied.

“Or my cane,” said 85-year-old Charlie Marr, in all seriousness.

Marr said Pittsburgh and Poway increased the level of concern that he and his wife share. “Most people don’t have a clue of what to do,” he said.

Many American Jews feel they are stepping into uncharted territory, unaccustomed to being targeted. But Jews in other parts of the world have long lived alongside the threat of violence; synagogues from Paris to Istanbul are often fortified as if they were embassies, and in Israel, people pass armed guards just to enter a shopping mall.

An epidemic of mass shootings, fueled by hate spewed online and aided by the easy availability of guns, has brought American Jews into the crosshairs, joining Muslims in New Zealand, black churchgoers in Charleston, moviegoers in Colorado, LGBTQ nightclub revelers in Orlando, country music fans in Las Vegas and countless others.

Ben Diwan, a 30-year-old from Israel who served in the IDF and is studying political science at UC Berkeley, said recent events — including Pittsburgh, Poway and Farca’s arrest and subsequent release — have made him, and some of his friends, consider purchasing a handgun for the first time.

“We’re all very liberal, coastal Jews,” he said. “Only in recent months has the thought started crossing our minds.”

Diwan said he recognizes the hesitancy of American Jews to embrace enhanced security. But he’d like to see even more, like metal detectors and armed guards, particularly around the High Holidays.

“For me it only comes naturally,” he said.

David Golden of San Francisco, a self-described “Jewish advocate of the right to keep and bear arms,” believes more guns in shul could make people safer. He cited Poway, where a congregant had a concealed carry weapon that may have deterred the shooter, although reporting indicates the weapon was used only after the shooter had gotten in his car to flee.

“Naturally the question arises again,” he wrote in an email to J., “as to when shuls in San Francisco will take security seriously?”

Others strongly oppose having guns in shul. Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, a Reconstructionist synagogue in New York City, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency earlier this year that she believes congregants carrying weapons would only “exacerbate the situation.”

“It would create a culture of fear and promote a culture of guns when we believe access to guns should be more limited,” she said.

Elected officials in the state are trying to address the threat, with encouragement from Jewish lawmakers. On April 29, two days after the Poway shooting, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a revision to the state budget that will pour $15 million into the Nonprofit Security Grant Program. The program, which helps bulk up security at nonprofits that are “targets of hate-motivated violence,” had paid out only $4.5 million since 2015.

State Sen. Ben Allen (D-Los Angeles County) said the California Legislative Jewish Caucus lobbied Newsom for an increase even before Poway.

“We met with the governor over a nice breakfast with bagels” earlier this year, he said. “We laid out a series of asks. It was a wonderful meeting. Our message really got through.”

In a statement announcing the revision, delivered on the heels of a Holocaust memorial ceremony at the statehouse, Newsom cited the “troubling trend of hate-fueled attacks across the country.”

“An attack against any community is an attack against our entire state,” the governor said.

Allen said he hopes the money will be available as soon as this summer. Grant recipients will be chosen by the state’s Office of Emergency Services.

an armed officer stands outside a synagogue doorway
In France and elsewhere in Europe, armed guards outside synagogues are a common sight. (Photo/JTA-Kenzo Tribouillard-AFP-Getty Images)

Funding is a major concern for synagogue administrators looking to boost security. Experts say visible deterrents such as a police presence are useful in warding off those who would think to do harm — but Gladstone said hiring off-duty San Francisco police officers to patrol a synagogue costs more than $100 per hour.

It’s important to have “something that makes it look like you’re not just going to walk in an unattended, open door,” Gladstone said. “The constraining factor is always funding.”

“If we had a lot more money, we would do more security guards,” said Karen Wisialowski, a community relations officer at Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame. Though it would make the community “feel protected,” she said, “I know that’s ultimately not the right answer.”

Wisialowski said her synagogue has received support from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, the Union for Reform Judaism and NATA, the National Association for Temple Administrators, and that Jewish leaders have “come together in a way that we have never done before.”

She recently applied for a grant from the DHS that would enable additional “physical barrier activities” and possibly more funds for security guards.

Would metal detectors, emergency training or even one or two armed security guards stop someone with a military-grade weapon? In 2017, the year before the Pittsburgh shooting, the Tree of Life synagogue held security trainings with retired FBI agent Brad Orsini, according to news outlets, which may have prevented an even worse tragedy, but did little to stop a 46-year-old anti-Semite with four semi-automatics from doing irreparable harm first.

Rafael Brinner, an S.F. Federation security expert and a colleague of Orsini’s, said the rabbi at the Tree of Life synagogue was instructed to carry a cell phone during the sessions, which prevented even greater carnage.

The security dilemma can feel like a halachic conundrum, with each proposed solution presenting additional questions. For example, what happens when a synagogue that professes to be an open, welcoming space decides to keep its doors locked? And with shuls trying to sustain or grow membership in the face of an aging population, what effect will armed guards, locked doors, magnetic gates and active-shooter trainings have on attracting new members?

“There is a fear that if we talk about security too much, our population is going to fall away,” Wisialowski said. “They’re going to figure coming to synagogue is dangerous, and they don’t want to go anymore. We always said that’s not the kind of community we want to be.”

However, “Pittsburgh, the state of the country now, has changed that,” she said. “We realize we can no longer be complacent.”

Surveys of European Jews have shown that safety considerations have a significant impact on participation in Jewish life. A 2013 report from the EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights showed 23 percent of Jewish respondents across Europe “at least occasionally avoid visiting Jewish events or sites” because they would not feel safe.

Rabbi Dovid Bush of the Chabad center in Petaluma uses Jewish law to make sense of the security question.

“The Torah that Moshe commanded us is the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob,” he said in an email, quoting Deuteronomy. For that reason, Bush said, it’s imperative that synagogues feel welcoming, like a Jew’s “rightful home.”

But he also cited another verse from Deuteronomy: “You shall watch yourselves very well.”

“The preciousness of human life is a core value of Judaism, and we do whatever we can to preserve and celebrate life,” he said. “While I’m sure there is importance in feeling safe, it is incumbent upon us to be safe. It would be amazing if we didn’t have to do these measures. But it’s become a part of our life.”

Toward that end, the Chabad center recently received a security microgrant of between $3,500 and $7,000 from the Jewish Community Federation, one of 60 such grants the Federation is awarding. Like many synagogue leaders who were reluctant to divulge details of their security efforts, Bush did not want to name the specific improvements for the center, whose motto is “Judaism with a smile!”

Brinner, said the grants will help synagogues sidestep the bureaucracy of state and federal awards, which are lucrative but highly competitive and require a time-consuming grant application process. They’ll cover equipment purchases like video intercoms, gates and locks, or trainings for synagogue leaders and staff, including active-shooter trainings and “stop the bleed” sessions.

One of the most common requests grantees make is for active-shooter trainings, according to Brinner, who encourages synagogues to request such trainings through their local police departments, which often provide them without charge. He said they help make synagogues feel like “safe spaces” and “empower anyone who’s attending to know what to do in an emergency.”

Rabbi Jason Rodich at the entrance to Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, which has long used metal detectors and unarmed guards to screen people coming into the building. (Photo/Sue Barnett)
Rabbi Jason Rodich at the entrance to Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, which has long used metal detectors and unarmed guards to screen people coming into the building. (Photo/Sue Barnett)

Still, he said it was important to emphasize that in the case of active shooters, “we’re talking about an extreme eventuality.”

“It’s the worst-case scenario that we’re training against,” he said. “We live in earthquake country, for example. There’s plenty of other situations that probably come up way more often, from a preparedness standpoint.”

Rabbi Beth Singer at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El, with more than 2,000 families, said managing security is a balancing act. “We have to work hard to not let this be the new normal,” she said in an interview following the Poway attack.

The iconic domed synagogue on Lake Street has some of the tightest security in the region: a single point of entry with two sets of doors, and a security guard on duty who checks bags at all times. “If there wasn’t a threat of violence,” Singer said, “our doors would be open all the time.”

She said Emanu-El maintains a relationship with local police and puts extra protective measures in place during Shabbat and holidays. Still, she said the hiring of armed guards presents unique complications, particularly for congregations like Emanu-El that are racially diverse.

“There’s an issue of implicit bias that people have,” she said told J. in an earlier interview. “We have a lot of Jews of color who attend all of our events. You have to be very careful when you have weapons, and people’s implicit bias.”

Many have accepted the current state of affairs as the new normal. But Singer holds out hope that it may yet become another chapter in American history.

“This is not the way our country should be. America is the place for freedom for everybody,” she said. “It’s just not operating that way right now.”

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Updated Aug. 8, 2019 to clarify details of the Tree of Life active shooter training.

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.