Jewish organizations are evaluating and updating security in the wake of the shooting at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27.
They have done safety assessments, upgraded their security postures and held events like meetings and drills. Security is an ongoing issue, community leaders say, but the shooting has brought its importance into the spotlight.
Frank Riehl, director of security at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, estimates that the number of safety and security reviews has tripled over the past month.
“Even though Pittsburgh is five hours away, it feels like it was five blocks away to the Philadelphia community,” said Riehl, who consults on security matters for other area Jewish organizations. “A lot of people in the Philadelphia area have connections to the Pittsburgh area as well.”
The community has held several security meetings since the shooting. Meetings at the Jewish Community Services Building on Oct. 29 and at Politz Hebrew Academy on Nov. 7 each drew hundreds of attendees, including local and federal law enforcement officials and community leaders.
Riehl spoke at the meeting at the Jewish Community Services Building, and discussed the importance of having strong relationships with law agencies. He has also had private meetings with community organizations.
“It’s an ongoing process,” Riehl said. “Specifically within the Jewish community, there’s going to have to be some — and I’ve been telling all the folks that I’ve gone out and met with — they’re going to have to have some difficult and honest conversations in regards to how much money they want to spend and do they want to actually increase the security of their facility.”
In the meetings, he has come across several recurring challenges. One is meeting security needs while ensuring Jewish communal spaces feel open and welcoming. Another, and perhaps the most daunting, is cost. There are federal grant programs, Riehl noted, but there’s not enough money to go around.
“All of these organizations are having to take a hard look at it and trying to figure out ways that, if they want to improve their access and control systems or if they want to install locks on all the doors, stuff like that,” he said. “That comes with a cost.”
The first step to improving security is an assessment, Riehl said. Organizations can access that on their own with a checklist Riehl has or connect to other resources, such as the Department of Homeland Security, for a more comprehensive review.
Congregation Rodeph Shalom is one organization that held a security assessment in the past month and is implementing enhancements.
“We have had a security task force in place for some time,” Executive Director Jeffrey Katz said. “The horrific events in Pittsburgh caused us to revisit and add focus on specific areas.”
Riehl also recommends reaching out and developing a relationship with local police.
“Pittsburgh hits so close to home, at least here in the Philadelphia area,” Riehl said. “We here in the Philadelphia area need to up our game and take a look at these things and realize that, yes, it can happen here.”
At Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, Head of School Sharon Levin and Chief Operating and Development Officer Alex Stroker said their relationship with the Radnor Township Police Department allowed the police to swiftly respond after the shooting. The police were present on campus for several days after the shooting.
“The minute the incident took place on [the] Saturday, I received a call on my cell phone from the township chief, asking me if I would want to have added presence on the campus, not only as the drop-offs begin early in the week, but also possibly over the weekend,” Stroker said.
About four years ago, several isolated incidents led to the school enhancing its security measures. These measures were already in place, so the school didn’t have to scramble after the shooting, but it did urge their community to be observant and report suspicious activity.
“We have amazing systems in place here,” Levin said. “In a way, we were ahead of the curve, being proactive here. … Our community is aware of all the precautions we take.”
Kaiserman JCC CEO Amy Krulik said the shooting didn’t affect security at the JCC in Wynnewood. While the shooting may have served as an indicator of the importance of security, it has been an ongoing issue for a while, especially after the slew of bomb threats made to Jewish organizations about two years ago.
“There’s been a number of tragic incidents, other than the shooting in Pittsburgh, that makes safety a conversation that people are having,” Krulik said.
In Northeast Philadelphia, Congregation Beth Solomon has slowly upped its security in response to several incidences at the synagogue. Over the past two years, the Jerusalem stone of its mikvah was vandalized, its menorah was stolen, the windows of the synagogue’s van were smashed in and a man urinated on the synagogue entryway.
Immediately after the shooting, Rabbi Akiva Pollack, director of the Russian American Jewish Experience at CBS, began to wonder how he might be able prevent a similar tragedy from happening at their synagogue. The synagogue decided to hire a security guard for during Shabbat.
“It definitely affected everybody in some way,” Pollack said. “You always think a place of prayer, a sanctuary of God is a safe place. When you hear these stories, that somebody just walks in while people are in the middle of praying, it makes a big difference.”
Members of their community have taken the initiative to help amp up security by organizing an active shooter drill and a firearm safety course.
Pollack pointed to the Jewish concept of hishtadlus, which has motivated him in his decision-making around security. The idea of hishtadlus, he said, is that people should both have faith in God and take initiative.
“It is tough, but this is the new normal,” Pollack said. “This is the reality we live in.” l