Signs inside Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco remind congregants to keep locked doors closed at all times for safety. (Photo/Rabbi Abby Phelps)
Signs inside Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco remind congregants to keep locked doors closed at all times for safety. (Photo/Rabbi Abby Phelps)

Local synagogues ramp up security training after Colleyville

The Torah instructs us at least 36 times to welcome the stranger into our homes and communities, but in the days after a gunman took four people hostage at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas — after the rabbi welcomed him in because he appeared to need shelter  — that core principle is being reexamined.

Now, synagogue leaders across Northern California are ramping up worst-case-scenario training seminars not only for their clergy but also for their worshippers, which is a first for many congregations.

“This training saved our lives — I am not speaking in hyperbole here — it saved our lives,” Jeffrey Cohen, one of the four hostages at Temple Beth Israel in Colleyville, said in a post on Facebook two days after the Jan. 15 incident.

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, the Reform synagogue’s rabbi and one of the hostages, told the New York Times he’d taken part in at least four separate trainings in recent years. The sessions were led by the police department in Colleyville (a suburb of Dallas and Fort Worth), the FBI, the Anti-Defamation League and the Secure Community Network, a security and safety initiative for Jewish organizations in North America including the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

Now, after two years of relative quiet during the pandemic, synagogue clergy and executive directors across the Bay Area have been invited to participate in online, 90-minute, situational awareness training seminars through February. Organized by the Federation and designed in consultation with SCN, they are being rolled out across six regions in the Bay Area, said Rafael Brinner, the Federation’s director of community security, enabling neighboring synagogues to connect with one another.

“It’s a way of really building connection and cohesion within our communities around the Bay Area,” Brinner said, noting that the sessions could be extended to include synagogue members and additional Jewish organizations, if desired.

In light of what occurred in Colleyville, 150 congregants from Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley attended one of the Federation’s 90-minute trainings over Zoom this week, according to Ken Schnur, the synagogue’s executive director.

Ken Schnur
Ken Schnur

Brinner coached them on how to greet strangers who come to the synagogue, paying attention to their behavior and asking open-ended questions to gauge their intentions. Then, Schnur said, “make a decision based on behavior.”

On a Saturday morning last August, members of the synagogue allowed entry to a stranger who began shouting an antisemitic screed once inside the sanctuary. He was promptly escorted out. The interaction was brief but unsettling, Schnur said. Fortunately, congregants had been included in situational awareness trainings in years past, he said, and the skills they learned were put into practice. A congregant called Berkeley police, who were able to arrest the man, who had previously been arrested for stalking, as he was approaching the nearby Berkeley Chabad.

“We want everybody to know this stuff, not just the staff,” Schnur said.

At Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, plans are underway to involve congregants in situational awareness training and drills very soon.

At Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, plans are underway to involve congregants in situational awareness training and drills.
At Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, plans are underway to involve congregants in situational awareness training and drills.

“We’d never had an active shooting training class for the congregation, only for the employees,” Rabbi Mark Bloom said, noting that Colleyville has changed things. “We’ll be doing that [training for congregants] … a live, active-shooter training drill.”

Rabbi Mark Bloom
Rabbi Mark Bloom

The Conservative shul also has brought on a second custodian to stand guard during Saturday services. Bloom said both custodians have been trained as guards and will be present during large synagogue gatherings. They know the congregation well and can spot newcomers, the rabbi said, adding that they bring a sense of safety and calm, which is why he prefers their presence over that of hired armed guards.

At Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, Rabbi Sarah Graff said in an email to J. that the Conservative synagogue is now “encouraging congregants to participate in the online training being offered by Secure Community Network.”

In San Francisco, Reform Congregation Emanu-El is considering expanding its situational training drills to include members and others beyond synagogue staff, said David Goldman, Emanu-El’s executive director.

Rabbi Paula Marcus
Rabbi Paula Marcus

At Temple Beth El in Aptos, a Reform synagogue and JCC, Rabbi Paula Marcus is leaning toward expanding security trainings to congregants.

“Now we’re talking about another training for the staff and including members,” Marcus said.

The rabbi in Colleyville said he threw a chair at the gunman, an action that enabled him and the two remaining hostages to escape after an 11-hour standoff. One hostage had been allowed to leave prior to that.

Subsequently, on the Facebook group for the Central Conference of American Rabbis, a Reform leadership organization, a question was posed about how many synagogues have chairs that are movable in their sanctuaries.

That was “very odd to see,” Marcus said. It “was kind of like, ‘Oh, this is what we’re thinking about now? Do we have chairs that we would be able to lift and throw?’ That was a bit of a reality check.”

The question of how to welcome newcomers to synagogues also is undergoing a reality check.

Rabbi Katie Mizrahi headshot
Rabbi Katie Mizrahi

“Part of what is so powerful about that [Colleyville incident] is the moment when the rabbi gave tea to the attacker,” said Rabbi Katie Mizrahi of Or Shalom Jewish Community, a Reconstructionist synagogue in San Francisco. “In my circles of colleagues and Jewish professionals, there are those that think that was a mistake, and there are those that say that saved his life.”

Mizrahi said she is in search of a middle ground, one that doesn’t sacrifice either safety or Jewish hospitality.

“This is the moment we’re in,” Mizrahi said. “We’ve all been marinating in an intense soup of fear for years. It is important for religious institutions to be responsible, but also to help people find another way of being that is not fearful.”

That’s what brought her to participate in a Jan. 27 online course, provided by SCN, on situational awareness training.

We’ve all been marinating in an intense soup of fear for years. It is important for religious institutions to be responsible, but also to help people find another way of being that is not fearful.

Mizrahi said one of the most important takeaways was “it’s one thing to have a funny feeling and think to yourself, hmm, maybe I should call the police, but the important thing is to actually make the call. The thing was that we have to trust our instincts and to act on our instincts … but we should also be aware of our own biases.”

The course also emphasized being familiar with the cardinal directions, which could be useful when alerting police to a suspect on the run, and learning to notice details, which make for better witness testimonies. Shoes in particular are key to remember, as they’re the least likely article of clothing a suspect will change to evade police detection.

Knowing the exits to a building and having a securable room that can lock out an intruder are other useful tips she learned. She said the training could be a tool to empower congregants, though Or Shalom has not yet made any decisions about making congregants aware of trainings.

Rabbi Yoni Regev
Rabbi Yoni Regev

Rabbi Yoni Regev, the associate rabbi at Reform Temple Sinai in Oakland, said that mindsets have changed toward strangers entering the synagogue, and it’s a painful reality to confront.

​​”In every interaction we have, there is a moment of doubt and a moment of concern,” Regev said. “That means I can’t be my authentic self, and I can’t be as welcoming as I want to be, and that is heartbreaking.”

In Santa Rosa, members at Congregation Shomrei Torah gathered on Zoom only five days after the Colleyville incident to raise safety concerns to synagogue leadership. More than 100 people participated, with suggestions ranging from buying a metal detector for the Reform synagogue to having pre-registration for in-person services.

“I personally feel like the metal detector is the next thing we’re going to have to do,” said Rabbi George Gittleman, who is in his 26th year as Shomrei Torah’s spiritual leader. “I don’t know another way to make sure someone doesn’t come in with a weapon.”

In Modesto, home to a meager and geographically isolated Jewish community in Stanislaus County, Congregation Beth Shalom Rabbi Shalom Bochner said tight security measures — such as gates around the synagogue, an alarm system, security cameras and repeated active-shooter training drills for all staff — have been in place for years.

“I’m well aware of how important it is because we are living in a part of the state that has active militia groups. The Proud Boys are an active part of Stanislaus County,” Bochner said, adding that the Jewish community has not been directly threatened by militia groups.

Rabbi Shalom Bochner speaks to his Modesto congregation in 2019, on the same day that a "Straight Pride" march was held in the town. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)
Rabbi Shalom Bochner speaks to his Modesto congregation in 2019, on the same day that a “Straight Pride” march was held in the town. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)

Bochner said his shul has built a network of support from Muslim and Christian community leaders, law enforcement and city government.

As events were unfolding in Colleyville, the county sheriff emailed Bochner and offered support, and the next day, the mayor of Modesto came to the synagogue to make sure everything was all right, he said. Moreover, leaders from several nearby houses of worship messaged him at that time, “expressing their outrage at what happened [in Colleyville] and their deep sense of solidarity with us. It’s a really amazing feeling to be in a supportive community,” he said.

As synagogues try to balance the grim realities of terror threats with the Jewish value of welcoming the stranger, Brinner stressed the value of kehillah, Hebrew for community, in a broader sense of the word.

“It’s about all of us as part of the Bay Area. We’re all intertwined. The more that we look out for one another, the more security we all enjoy,” Brinner said, referring to the recent violence against the AAPI community and violence impacting communities of color. “We have to deal with the world as it is, and not how we wish it was.”

Emma Goss
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for KTVU Fox 2 News. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.