By Eric Schucht and Toby Tabachnick
As synagogues and other houses of worship continue to be targeted with violence, many are wrestling with the question of if — and how — they should protect themselves with firearms.
For some, there is not a clear answer, as they weigh the disparate views of members who feel unsafe with any gun on the premises against those who feel unsafe without a gun in their own holster.
The conversation has taken on some urgency as the number of hate crimes in houses of worship rises.
In 2018 — the year three Pittsburgh congregations were attacked in the Tree of Life building — there were 1,550 offenses motivated by religious bias committed in the United States, with about 57.8% of those motivated by anti-Jewish bias, according to the FBI. Of those offenses, 15.4% occurred at houses of worship.
Since the attack at the Tree of Life building, many congregations are reexamining their policies on firearms, with most doing so as part of a larger security evaluation and plan.
To help congregations make informed decisions on best practices when it comes to guns, a new 23-page white paper titled “Firearms and the Faithful: Approaches to Armed Security in Jewish Communities,” created by the Secure Community Network, an initiative of The Jewish Federations of North America & the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, was distributed to Jewish organizations across the country. The guidelines set forth in the document were developed through consultations with law enforcement officers and security experts.
Frank Riehl, director of security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia declined to discuss the white paper, saying it stood on its own merits, but his counterpart for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh explained its key points.
“The main takeaway is that if a congregation is going to have individuals who are armed in that congregation, the best-case scenario is to have a trained law enforcement officer as your armed person within the congregation, whether they are on-duty or off-duty,” said Philadelphia native Shawn Brokos, director of community security for the Pittsburgh Federation.
“The reason we are advocating for current or former law enforcement officers is that those are the individuals who have received the highest level of training,” Brokos, a former FBI agent, stressed. “There is a large distinction between being able to carry a weapon and being able to shoot a weapon for target practice, versus actively engaging a firearm in a tactical situation. And law enforcement are the only individuals who have had that extensive training.”
In the event of an active shooter, law enforcement is “trained to make split-second live-saving decisions whether to engage a target, and without this training there is the possibility of a friendly fire situation or a civilian or innocent bystander being harmed.”
If a congregant is to be armed, Brokos said, “they should either be a current or former law enforcement officer who has had significant training in the use of firearms.” Those with military training would “absolutely be a second choice.”
Since the Pittsburgh shooting on Oct. 27, 2018, Knesset Hasefer: The Educational Synagogue of Yardley has started encouraging its congregants to become firearm trained and bring concealed weapons to services. Rabbi Nesanel Cadle said they’re hoping to expand their list of carriers, himself possibly included.
“It’s only a gain. An emotionally, mentally stable individual who is trained, especially for an incident in the shul, I see it only as an advantage. I don’t see the downside,” Cadle said. “These are concealed weapons. It’s not like we’re having someone walk around with an AK-47. So it doesn’t disrupt the demeanor of the shul at all, and it’s only a plus.”
Other synagogues in the Philadelphia area have committed to taking a more neutral stance — and some declined to discuss the topic.
While Congregation Brothers of Israel in Newtown actively discourages concealed carry in its building, the synagogue stops short of prohibiting the practice.
“We don’t ask our members if (they have a firearm),” office administrator Sharon Segarra said. “If we happen to know someone (does), they have every right to, but we don’t necessarily encourage it.”
At Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, Executive Director Brian Rissinger said, “Because we don’t have a policy against it, there is a tacit permission that is given.”
Rissinger knows of several congregants who are retired police officers and bring concealed weapons into the building. In these instances, there is an informal arrangement for these members to inform the synagogue whenever they’re carrying. The synagogue informs both its security team and local police.
Some synagogues have begun to broach the issue of concealed carry among congregants.
Rabbanit Hadas Fruchter of South Philadelphia Shtiebel said the congregation is so new that a conversation on firearms has yet to come up, but Fruchter feels confident about the overall security situation.
Steve Kantrowitz, the congregation president of Temple Brith Achim in King of Prussia, called Pittsburgh a “terrible, tragic, wake-up call” and “a moment that was hard to ignore.” Since then, discussions on an official concealed carry stance have come up, and Kantrowitz thinks it’s likely a policy will be implemented in the future.
“It is certainly a conversation that every congregation is having now,” he said.
Brokos stressed that it is up to individual synagogues to make decisions about allowing congregants to bring concealed weapons to synagogue.
“But our guidance would be that those who are armed have the necessary training,” she said, noting that the training would need to be “ongoing.”
Toby Tabachnick is the senior staff writer of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, an Exponent-affiliated publication.
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