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As We Work to Keep Our Shuls Safe, Don’t Forget to Keep Them Friendly

“Open for us the gates at the time of their closing.” Worshipers conclude their Yom Kippur prayers every year with this refrain — a final supplication to be sealed in the Book of Life — during the Neilah Shearim service that closes the holiday.

Neilah Shearim, more commonly known as Neilah, literally means “locking the gates.” As we pray for the metaphorical heavenly gates of forgiveness to remain open this Yom Kippur, how can we ensure that the physical gates of our Jewish institutions do the same?

Security measures at Jewish institutions, and for that matter all religious institutions, are an unfortunate priority these days. On the High Holidays, we must protect ourselves with security detail and sometimes even metal detectors and bag checks, so that we may devote our time in synagogue to prayer instead of worry.

In the presence of heightened security at our religious institutions, it is essential that our synagogues still feel like warm and welcoming houses of worship, not like airports.

We can demonstrate hospitality by viewing our security professionals as not only the safe-keepers of our institutions, but as the individuals who create a welcoming atmosphere. They are the men and women that newcomers first encounter when entering our institutions. Let’s remind security personnel of the importance of a smile and friendly greeting even while they do the essential work of protecting our institutions.

If possible, volunteer greeters or staff members should be stationed at the entrance with the security professionals. They can help welcome worshipers and answer any questions about the synagogue, holidays and security process. A simple note of apology posted on the entrance to the building also helps mitigate any ill feelings that might emerge from the encounter with security.

Even for those on the inside of the Jewish community, security is an unwelcome challenge. On our way to pray in a building that we may visit regularly with no questioning at all, suddenly we are given the third degree on a few days of the year. But we accept the security because we understand its importance and already are comfortable within the walls of our Jewish institutions.

For newcomers at High Holiday services, particularly the many friends and family of diverse religious backgrounds who may accompany them, the experience of approaching a Jewish institution may be intimidating on its own. Add in the metal detectors, security detail and questioning, and the experience of entering High Holidays services becomes a deterrent from engaging with the Jewish community.

The movement for a “Big Tent Judaism” now gaining currency among hundreds of Jewish organizations encourages us to welcome all newcomers and lower barriers to participation. While security presence on the High Holidays is non-negotiable for most Jewish institutions, there are ways we can open our gates even with the presence of security.

Each institution must evaluate with their security professionals how they can best welcome worshipers while maintaining their safety. We encourage Jewish organizations to meet with their staffs and boards in these crucial weeks before the High Holidays to implement simple measures to ensure that our physical gates reflect the metaphorical heavenly gates, the very gates that open on Rosh Hashanah to provide all worshipers with the opportunity to seek repentance and renewal.

This year, use the High Holidays to reflect on the physical and perceptual gates that act as barriers to the Jewish community. For one institution the gates may be security, and for another the gates may be language, literacy or cost.

This year — and for years to come — let’s take a cue from the High Holidays liturgy and really open our gates to the many newcomers to our Jewish institutions. Let’s not miss this opportunity to demonstrate to newcomers and those returning to the Jewish community the Jewish value of “hachnasat orechim,” hospitality.

With sensitivity and action, we can work together to make sure that opening the gates at the time of their closing only exists as an element of the Yom Kippur liturgy.

(Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky is the executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, the coordinating partner of the Big Tent Judaism Coalition (www.BigTentJudaism.org). Rabbi Edward M. Feinstein is the senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif.)

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