In the wake of the Pittsburgh attack, “shuls are being proactive [and] assessing their security needs,” said Rabbi Yehuda Friedman, OU associate director of synagogue services.
Jason Hagler, principal at Rapid Motions Technology, a company that installs and designs security systems, said he has received an unprecedented number of requests from shuls for his services after the Pittsburgh attack. “[T]here’s been a change in mindset, a new focus on not being passive,” said Rabbi Friedman. “We’ve been feeling very comfortable…and now the shul experience has changed,”
The OU recently conducted a conference call to discuss security issues in shuls, and “over 532 shul representatives called into the conference from a very wide range of hashkafot,” said Rabbi Yair Posy, OU director of community and synagogue services. “This is an issue that is now on everyone’s mind.”
Chaim Mitnizki, founder of SafeZone24, a nationwide security agency, noted that shuls are now willing to take on more “inconvenient” security measures than in the past. “It was hard to convince my clients to have a guard that screens people as they walk in or implement the Mantrap method – involving inner and outer doors to the entryway with the inner doors not opening until the outer doors are fully closed – because it jeopardized their liberty. But after the attack, people are more willing to concede comfort and liberties.”
People used to be hesitant to make great changes to their shuls, Hagler said. “Many customers felt this way, and some still do…people do not like change, especially when it comes to their shul and changing the traditional Shabbos atmosphere.” Now, however, he said, “this reasoning does not come up as much, especially because the rabbis and heads of the shuls themselves are the ones seeing the writing on the wall and explaining that to their congregants.”
Shuls have implemented various security measures to increase safety. Among the more common ones are the installation of security cameras, guards, active-shooter lockdown systems, and blast-proof film on windows that prevents shrapnel from coming through, said Hagler.
“One approach I’ve seen is decreasing the number of entry points to the shul. Instead of having multiple doors open, there will only be one or two,” said Rabbi Friedman. Additionally, many shuls now work with CSS (Community Security Services: a volunteer community service that has members of the community take turns guarding the shul).
“In my opinion, this is one of the most effective methods against an active shooter,” said Mitnizki. “It can be more effective than having a paid guard because that watchman’s family, friends, and community is inside the building he is guarding, so he is extra vigilant and dedicated.” A community watchman is also more familiar with the shul itself and its regular congregants, which is an added benefit.
When it comes to implementing new security measures, Hagler recommends shuls “start from the bottom, with the basics, and work your way up.”
“I’ve seen a lot of shuls spend a great deal of money on gadgets and systems they never use because they don’t have the basics of security in place first,” he said.
Mitnizki said people often assume that the most expensive and drastic measures are the most effective. Often, though, it’s smaller measures, like keeping the doors locked or organizing training sessions, that are the most effective, he said.
Mitnizki said right after the Pittsburgh attack, “people started to rely on security guards, thinking this is the most effective method of protection in the case of an attack.” But most security guards, he said, are positioned outside the shul, which is not wise since a potential shooter can simply gun them down and proceed into the shul.
“A security guard should be stationed inside,” he said. “Then, doors should be kept locked at all times, and the security guard should sit behind a screen next to the door so that he is the only one that can let people in and out.”
Mitnizki also stressed training congregants. “When someone is experiencing something scary that they’ve never experienced before, the person freezes,” he said. During training, participants are exposed to active shooter scenarios, and play out the measures that should be taken. “That way if it does happen, G-d forbid, people won’t freeze. They’ll know exactly what to do.”
Mitnizki said the Pittsburgh attack doesn’t necessarily indicate that attacks on synagogues are increasing, but “the event should make you more aware.” For example, “we thought white supremacists were no longer active, but this tragedy shows that’s not the case. That doesn’t mean white supremacy is on the rise; it just means we should be aware that they are a threat in terms of terror.”
Rabbi Posy noted that although he does not insist on every shul implementing high-level security measures, he does insist on every shul having a plan, “Some shuls don’t want to interrupt the Shabbos atmosphere, and some would like the security measures to be more informal,” he said. “That’s fine, but we tell all shuls they need to have a plan if something happens, even if they do not implement anything.”
“There will always be people questioning whether all these conversations and changes are really necessary,” said Rabbi Friedman. “But it’s all about educating people about the ramifications if an event like this does indeed occur again. Once people understand the ramifications of this, their skepticism usually subsides.”