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‘Run, hide, fight’: A grim creed for U.S. synagogues as extremist attacks rise

Walk into a modern Jewish temple in some U.S. cities today and it might bear some of the hallmarks of a high-tech fortress.

At the Chai Center in Long Island, N.Y., armed guards patrol the facility during services while high-definition cameras scan license plates. At Har Shalom synagogue in Missoula, Mont., the rabbi is raising funds for bullet-proof glass. And at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York, active-shooter emergency plans sit perched like airline safety cards in the pews.

Jewish leaders are on edge about extremist violence, citing a divisive political climate, the spread of online anti-Semitic speech, and a record number of hate groups operating in the U.S.

New North American statistics from a civil rights group show a surge in anti-Semitic assaults, days after another a deadly shooting at a schul last weekend killed one woman and wounded three others at Chabad of Poway Congregation near San Diego, Calif. The Anti-Defamation League marked a 105 per cent increase in physical assaults in 2018, with 39 incidents, up from the 19 logged in 2017.

The Chai Center has spent $ 100,000 US fortifying the campus, with help from a $ 50,000 US federal grant, according to the rabbi there. It’s looking to triple that investment, excluding the $ 2,000 US a month it pays for hired guards.

Such spending may be necessary, even if it amounts to what feels like “a tax on being a Jew in America,” said rabbi Chaim Steinmetz, who leads prayer at Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan, N.Y.

A laminated card slotted into a pew at Manhattan’s Kehilath Jeshurun synagogue instructs congregants about what to do in case of emergency, including an active shooter situation. (Steven D’Souza/CBC)

“This is outrageous,” he said. “Jews should be able to be safe just like everyone else.”

Steinmetz’s Modern Orthodox synagogue is patrolled by security guards, he said, and congregants are training to form a “safety brigade” to react to a possible attack.

The ADL’s 2018 audit, released Monday, recorded 1,879 anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. It was the third-highest number of incidents in four decades.

Those statistics only account for on-the-ground activity, not online anti-Semitism.

Digital hate culture is also fuelling attacks on Jewish Canadians, another rights group reported. This week, B’nai Brith Canada released its own audit, showing 2,041 anti-Semitic incidents, including online harassment — a 16.5 per cent increase from 2017. It was the third consecutive year of record-breaking incidents in Canada.

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York says members of his synagogue are forming a ‘safety brigade’ to bolster their reactions in a possible active-shooter scenario. An audit by the Anti-Defamation League found that anti-Semitic attacks in the U.S. doubled in 2018 from 2017. (Steven D’Souza/CBC)

Synagogues and Jewish community centres now participate in scenario-based active-shooter drills.

“We don’t have the luxury in this time to not focus on security,” said Oren Segal, director of the ADL’s Center for Extremism.

The group’s audit included last October’s massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, a shooting that killed 11 worshipers in the deadliest assault targeting Jews in U.S. history.

That rampage was just 1.5 kilometres from the doorstep of Rabbi Daniel Wasserman’s temple at Shaare Torah. 

Wasserman was part of the chevra kadisha Jewish burial society that carried out the delicate task of honouring and burying the bodies of the 11 murdered Tree of Life congregants.

‘New normal’

At his own temple years ago, Wasserman would open his sermons by testing congregants on the location of the synagogue’s defibrillator. Now, he said, he tests them on the temple’s nearest “active shooter” exits. 

“It’s the new normal,” the rabbi lamented. “You cannot have any synagogue in the United States that doesn’t have some sort of security in some form. That’s what we’ve come to.”

Rabbi Daniel Wasserman of Shaare Torah Congregation in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill participated in an active-shooter drill more than a year ago, before the massacre at the nearby Tree of Life synagogue in October 2018. ‘I’m struggling with the new normal,’ he said. (Justin Merriman/Associated Press)

Shaare Torre’s “active shooter” signs, posted two years ago on the second floor and the main sanctuary, map out building exits. The plans urge worshipers to barricade doors, hide behind heavy objects, and “plan how to fight if discovered.”

“Commit to stopping the person, be fast, ruthless, and try to use surprises,” the directive said. Experts urge congregants to internalize the guidelines “run, hide, fight” to thwart would-be assailants. The training is meant to allow people to survive for three to five minutes, roughly the time it takes for first responders to arrive.

Security training

In a bid to strengthen its response to a potential attack two years ago, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh enlisted 28-year FBI veteran Brad Orsini to create a security assessment plan. He has since led more than 130 training sessions in the area, including a session one month before the Tree of Life massacre attended by the synagogue’s spiritual leader Jeffrey Myers.

“Rabbi Myers never carried a cellphone before that,” Orsini said, owing to the rabbi’s observance of the cessation of using technology on Fridays and Saturdays, or Shabbat, as per religious teachings. Myers was persuaded to bring his phone to services, a move that may have saved lives when a gunman opened fire at Tree of Life last October.

“Rabbi Myers was the first one to call 911,” Orsini said. “He knew from the training. He was able to get to escape routes and get people through safely.”

A crew from Chesed Shel Emes Emergency Services and Recovery Unit arrive at the Tree of Life synagogue where 11 worshippers were murdered in October 2018. (Cathal McNaughton/Reuters)

“Hardening” features introduced to Pittsburgh Jewish facilities include access control systems, reinforced doors, cameras and alert systems, Orsini said.

“It’s sad that we have to go to a house of worship and advise our congregants, advise our staff, train our ushers and greeters, on what to do in our worst nightmare.”

Extremists target other faiths

Across faiths, religious leaders are on edge about extremists.

Abbas Barzegar, with the Center for Islamic American Relations, said many American mosques are now equipped with surveillance cameras. Imams regularly form relationships with local law enforcement for logistics help and security concerns. 

In the lead-up to the holiest month on the Islamic calendar next week, Barzegar said, apprehension about safety for worshipers is palpable after the New Zealand mosque attack in March that killed 50 people.

People comfort each other before Friday prayers outside Al-Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, after a deadly attack there in March. Mosques in the U.S. have increased security in response to fears of anti-Muslim violence by extremists. (Edgar Su/Reuters)

“There’s an anxious solemnity. A sadness that, as we’re entering Ramadan, these tragedies are on our shoulders.”

Last month on Easter Sunday, three Christian churches in Sri Lanka were targeted in co-ordinated suicide bombings. In 2015, black Christian pastors began rethinking security measures following a massacre by a white supremacist at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.

Active shooter drills are also becoming commonplace for church staff in Ohio, Texas and Upstate New York.

Such measures can’t be an afterthought, said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

“Security — gotta have it. Gotta have it yesterday,” Levin said. “Every police agency should have every house of worship’s blueprint on computer, with consultations and security plans.”

People hold hands as they pray while they take part in the morning service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston in 2015. A white supremacist committed mass murder at the church in 2015, killing nine people. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

In the U.S., state and federal grants have helped pay for upgrades and security precautions at faith-based institutions. The Nonprofit Security Program allocates $ 60 million for “target hardening” of nonprofits at risk of attacks by extremists.

“All this goes to changing the perception that a house of worship is a soft target,” said Doron Horowitz, the Canadian-Israeli expert advising the Secure Community Network, a group created by the Jewish Federations of North America.

The network’s CEO, Michael Masters, is travelling to Montreal to engage the Jewish community next week.

While some have called the Pittsburgh attack a wakeup call, rabbi Wasserman noted the Jewish community has long been on guard. He recalled one worshiper 26 years ago who would stand during sermons, halfway down the schul against the wall, watching the rest of the congregation.

“He did it because he felt there was a danger if everybody is listening to the rabbi, and what if somebody walks into the schul and starts to shoot? Everybody thought that was crazy,” Wasserman said. “Turns out he was ahead of the curve.”

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