By Jacques Lurie
In many ways, Yom Kippur is a synagogue executive director’s nightmare. The entire synagogue community will make their way into the shul at some point during the day. The carpets have been cleaned, the Torah crowns have been polished, and the children’s services are scheduled. In the best of years, this day is stressful, albeit rewarding.
This year, there was a whole new aspect added to the preparation. With world events as they are, anti-Semitism on the rise and the attack on the Tree of Life building in Pittsburgh, many new security concerns have come to the forefront.
Our building was evaluated, our board grappled with security concerns, our staff received active shooter training and the Philadelphia Police addressed our congregation with the strategies for a worst-case scenario. This year, there were not only video cameras installed at every entrance to our building — made possible by a Homeland Security grant that was received with the help and guidance of the Jewish Federation — but congregants were wished a happy New Year by an armed guard while having their tallit bags and belongings searched.
At 8:30 a.m., only a half-hour shy of the start of services, I was called to the parking lot. Much to my surprise, a Philadelphia police officer asked to speak with me. He just received notice that he was to be stationed at the synagogue and would be replaced at the end of his shift in order to provide dawn-to-dusk coverage. After all, there had been a shooting at a synagogue in Germany. Capt. Ritchie of the 7th Police District called and said all seven synagogues in Northeast Philadelphia were to be immediately protected.
My first reaction was concern. Did they know something? Were there threats in Philadelphia? All of the worst possible scenarios came to mind. Then it became clear: This was the result of the Philadelphia Police Department getting information and tying together the facts that someone attacked a synagogue because there were Jews praying there on the holiest of days. People would be fearful; they needed to know that our law enforcement cared and would be there to protect us, to protect the sanctity of the community and enable us to come to synagogue without fear. The Philadelphia Police reacted smartly and expeditiously. Every synagogue in Northeast Philadelphia and beyond could tell their congregations that an officer and the department was behind him or her. They were there to protect our Jewish community.
I ended Yom Kippur as tired, relieved and rewarded as always. But on this night, unlike in any of the previous years, I knew that not only did my board do all it could to protect our congregation, but if there were ever a question, I knew that our city police department was — and will be — there for us.
I can only hope that perhaps next year, or someday soon, we’ll be able to shut down the cameras and welcome everyone though our unlocked doors. But in the meantime, we remain grateful to all of those who have made our building a safe and secure place to learn, play and pray.
Jacques Lurie is the executive director of Congregations of Shaare Shamayim in Northeast Philadelphia.