After a gunman opened fire at a synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday, killing at least 11 and wounding others in what federal prosecutors are calling a hate crime, faith leaders around the country are re-examining security tactics while trying to ensure their religious institutions remain accessible community centers.
“Because of the history of violence and harassment and threats against the Jewish community, all Jewish institutions have these security plans,” said Doron Ezickson, the head of the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) regional office in Washington, D.C. “All synagogues, all community centers, all preschools, all Jewish Day schools are forced, as part of their normal operative procedure, to train staff and to have procedures.”
Protocols differ between institutions, but various organizations, including the Department of Homeland Security, have materials on how to prepare for an active shooter.
Homeland Security recommends religious establishments create a Threat Assessment Team (TAT) that can prepare and evaluate action plans and “[serve] as a central convening body, so that warning signs observed by multiple people are not considered isolated incidents, slipping through the cracks, when they actually may represent escalating behavior that is a serious concern.”
For the fourth consecutive year, hate crimes are up in major U.S. cities, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. Though attacks like the one in Pittsburgh are always shocking, the U.S. has a history of anti-semitism, Ezickson says.
“We experienced about a 10- to 15-year period of slow decline in the number of incidents of harassment and violence and destruction of property of Jews with anti- Semitic intent or slogans,” Ezickson said.
But in 2016, there was a 34 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents tracked by the ADL, rising towards the end of the year, near the 2016 presidential election. In 2017, the ADL charted a 57 percent increase, with 1,986 reported anti-Semitic incidents.
“It was the largest one-year increase in the 40 years we’ve conducted this audit,” Ezickson said.
Lessons from the past
Like Pittsburgh, suburban Kansas City was the scene of a major violent attack on the American Jewish community.
On April 13, 2014, an avowed white supremacist from Missouri drove to the the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City — known locally as “The J” — then shot and killed a 14-year-old boy and his 69-year-old grandfather in the parking lot.
The man also shot at other people and the building itself before driving about a mile north to a Jewish retirement community, where he shot and killed a 53-year-old woman. None of the three victims were Jewish.
Gavriela Geller heads the local branch of the American Jewish Committee, a nonprofit advocacy organization. Her office is in the community center, and Geller said the first person she called Saturday after learning of the Pittsburgh shootings was the center’s head of security.
The area’s congregations immediately stepped up their security, which she said included a visible law enforcement presence.
“Our community needs that during these moments to feel faith,” Geller said. “Not just during these moments but we always have security at our events now… because unfortunately we have learned the hard way that the reality is, we really need it.”
And while the sudden presence of security guards could be jarring, Geller said the Kansas City Jewish community is used to it by now, thanks in part to changes implemented in the wake of the 2014 shooting.
“I think in our community people are more comforted than anything at the presence of security at this point,” she said. “The reality is, people do feel safer when there’s security and so I think any issues that they would have of feeling an invasion of privacy are outweighed by the fact that they know it’s needed, and it provides a sense of real comfort and security.”
About 150 people in the Kansas City Jewish community received active shooter training from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in the wake of the 2014 incident.
Before boarding a flight on Saturday afternoon, President Donald Trump suggested that if armed guards had been inside the Pittsburgh synagogue, the shooting could have been prevented. But the ADL’s Ezickson disagrees.
“We do not ascribe to the view that every house of worship in the United States should have an armed guard,” Ezickson said. “We are not going to make our places of worship armed. We’re not going to concede that somehow this violence is the new normal.”
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.