Ahead of High Holidays, Synagogues Address Security Concerns

New concrete poles at Ohev Shalom of Bucks County
New concrete poles at Ohev Shalom of Bucks County (Courtesy of Rabbi Eliott N. Perlstein)

Those who visit Ohev Shalom of Bucks County may notice a new exterior addition.

Although they appear somewhat decorative, the concrete poles installed a few months back are intended to act as a barrier to prevent vehicles from crashing into the sanctuary. While the shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway, California, didn’t inspire their installation, the project serves as an example of how security and safety is always on the minds of congregations.

And with the High Holidays approaching, many shuls throughout Greater Philadelphia are taking steps to make the year’s busiest time as safe as possible.

“This is an ongoing project. Whenever we see something that may be a weak spot, we try to strengthen the security of that,” said Ohev Shalom Rabbi Eliott N. Perlstein.

Stephen Fox, congregation president of Kehilat HaNahar, the Little Shul by the River in New Hope, said the Pittsburgh and Poway attacks have led to deeper conversation on security and procedures for this year’s High Holiday services. As usual, the synagogue will have a law enforcement presence at services. Without getting into specifics, Fox said congregation leaders have done what they can to ease the concerns of people after the shootings.

“Some members reacted very very strongly. Some members threatened to leave if we didn’t do things,” Fox said. “People wanted an electronic gate with a keypad at the entrance to the driveway. On a High Holiday, you can’t let cars in one at a time. It’s not going to work. So we’ve tried to temper (concerns).”

Rae Roeder is the co-chair of the safety and security committee at Congregation Beth Israel near Media. She said the synagogue has struggled to find the balance between being welcoming to newcomers and wary of strangers. Safety is always a concern, but Roeder said the shootings exacerbated fears. However, she said informing people of security procedures seems to help.

“Somebody who is not a regular attendee who just comes for High Holidays wanted to know what we are doing,” Roeder said. “And we were able to say we had people trained in the congregation and have a relationship with the local state troopers and an awareness of people coming in, while still trying to maintain a welcoming atmosphere.”

Rabbi Howard Cove at Beiteinu Synagogue has different considerations, as the congregation has no building of its own and using public spaces complicates security matters. This year, all High Holiday services will be held at the Chubb Hotel and Conference Center in Lafayette Hill. Cove said he was surprised to hear none of the congregants ask about security, but regardless, it’s a focus.

“Everyone who’s been victimized, whether it’s been a church, a synagogue, says the same thing,” Cove said. “We are Pittsburgh. We are Poway. It could be any of us. Evil is everywhere and we just have to be on guard.”

At Congregation Kol Emet in Morrisville, immediate past-president Sindey Dranoff said the shootings have made synagogue leaders, along with many in the community, more aware of security needs. It motivated the synagogue to pursue new security measures that had been under consideration for several months.

The same can be said of Temple Brith Achim in King of Prussia. The synagogue recently formed a committee to focus specifically on security. The group coordinates with local law enforcement to arrange facility assessments and staff training.

Congregation President Steve Kantrowitz said the group is not just about security, but emergencies in general, going beyond concerns generated by the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue building.

“It’s the full safety and security,” he said.

A similar committee formed at Kehilat HaNahar about five years ago but only met sporadically. Now the committee meets monthly and has its own budget. Fox said the congregation will be more vigilant about strangers at services. But they’re also aware of the fact that, statistically, the synagogue is more likely to experience emergency in the form of a visitor having a heart attack at services.

While a shooting may be unlikely, several area synagogues have begun facility improvements for increased security.

Earlier this month, The Times Herald in Norristown reported that Temple Brith Achim was awarded a $63,584 grant for security upgrades through the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency. The funds will go toward the installation of surveillance cameras and other safety enhancements.

Tom Wolpert, congregation president of Young Israel of Elkins Park, said in 2016 the shul obtained a grant to improve security. Construction of fencing, better lighting and installation of a new front door was completed in August. Wolpert said the congregation plans to apply for other grants for hiring additional security guards.

Lannie Hulnick, executive director of Kesher Israel Congregation, said even small changes in security can make a big difference and make people more comfortable for High Holiday services.

“Just the presence of heightened security makes people feel a little more at ease,” Hulnick said. “Even things like closing blinds at your services is something we’ll probably be doing this year.”

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