Synagogues, security and solidarity


Police increased security at Park East Synagogue on East 67th Street following the Oct. 27 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. Photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office
After the mass murder of Jews in Pittsburgh, New York’s shuls start thinking about the unthinkable — and they’re confronting horror and hate with soul-searching and hope
BY DOUGLAS FEIDEN

Moorish and Medieval. Romanesque and Byzantine. Gothic and Deco. Brutalist and Expressionist.

Every architectural style under the sun was employed in the golden age of Manhattan synagogue construction.

It started after the Civil War and lasted into the 1960s, and hundreds of houses of worship came to life in that century of faith.

They had two things in common: In culture, design and physical plant, most were open and inviting and welcoming. And they were never built as fortress redoubts to ward off gun-toting domestic terrorists.

Now, their potential vulnerability to catastrophic attack is on display — despite years of hardening infrastructure and seeking protection with bollards, stone blocks, squad cars, private security and off-duty cops.

The hate-fueled massacre of 11 Jewish worshippers at the Tree of Life Congregation on a Sabbath morning in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27 by an anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant killer shouting “All Jews must die” has shaken the faith community to its core.

Security protocols are being changed. Extra metal detectors installed. Cameras purchased. Eblast injunctions to carry ID cards dispatched en masse.

But more fundamentally, a communal soul-searching about the rise of a venomous anti-Semitism in America is underway.

And even as interfaith prayer vigils are held at Central Synagogue, Sutton Place Synagogue and Congregation Ansche Chesed, and candlelight vigils take place in Union Square, and a more religious vigil was held at Yeshiva University, and Mayor Bill de Blasio and other officials offered consolation at Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue, rabbis and congregants alike were asking the same urgent questions:

Can it happen here? Is there a gunman like Robert Bowers, who opened fire during a baby-naming ceremony, felling victims who ranged in age from 54 to 97, lurking amongst us? And what do we do to combat it?

“I don’t want to say it’s desperate,” said Rabbi Jonathan Glass, who has helmed the Tribeca Synagogue on downtown White Street since 1989. “But it’s become a very, very serious situation.”

The shul, which serves roughly 100 families, has received several target-hardening grants from the Dept. of Homeland Security, which funds a specialized training program in active-shooter preparedness that is typically given to around seven or eight members of his board. That’s no longer enough, the rabbi has come to believe.

“Now, we’re thinking about opening it up, and encouraging as many people in our congregation to participate as possible,” he said.

Rabbi Ben Tzion Krasnianski, executive director of the Chabad of the Upper East Side, on Sept. 30 had his own lesser experience with what the NYPD branded a hate crime. A public sukkah set up just yards away from Gracie Mansion to mark the festive Jewish holiday of Sukkot was spray painted in black and desecrated with the phrase “FREE GAZA.” No arrests have been made.

The rabbi said he didn’t learn of the horrors in Pittsburgh until 5:30 p.m. on Saturday when a shaken worshipper seeking comfort came in for afternoon prayers and related the news, which he could not know because Orthodox observers eschew access to phones and TV on the Sabbath.

“A Jew is a Jew is a Jew — Reform, Orthodox or Conservative — and their only crime, the only reason they were attacked, the only reason for the outburst of a madman, was that they were Jewish,” Rabbi Krasnianski said. “We have to respond to darkness with light,” he added.

Chabad on East 77th Street, which is affiliated with the Lubavitch Hasidic movement, uses a global security firm staffed by ex-officers of Shin Bet, the Israeli secret service, and upgrades and enhancements are always a possibility, he said.

FIGHTING THE FORTRESS MENTALITY

“But I hope we never reach that point where we go the European-style, where the synagogues are fortresses, or the South American-style, where they don’t let you in if they don’t know you,” Krasnianski added.

Many synagogues are now tinkering with their security plans. In a “Dear Congregants” letter for instance, Rabbi Joshua Davidson of Temple Emanu-El wrote that from now on, entry for all members and visitors to services and events will be moved away from Fifth Avenue and confined to 1 East 65th Street.

“Additional security personnel will be deployed,” he wrote.

But security is only part of the story. So is abiding faith:

“We live the exact values that the assailant repudiated,” said Rabbi Robert Levine of Congregation Rodeph Sholom on the Upper West Side. “And we have no intention of ever backing down from them ... No anti-Semite will dictate how we live — never has and never will.”

To that end, Jeff Parness, one of his congregants, traveled to Pittsburgh on Tuesday, got to a makeshift memorial within a block or two of the Tree of Life, and in a phone interview at the scene, told of how he had brought with him 45 “Stars of Hope” created on Sunday by the shul’s children and their parents in solidarity with the victims.

“When you see art bearing hopeful messages, drawn organically by the hand of a child, you see that we are all God’s children, you see that we are all human, and you know that you are not alone,” Parness said.

Then he hung some of the one-foot-high painted stars, crafted on the Upper West Side, at the memorial, attached others to a police barricade and set off to sprinkle the rest all about Squirrel Hill.

invreporter@strausnews.com