In the wake of last week’s shooting at the Chabad of Poway outside San Diego and six months after the rampage at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, a prominent Manhattan rabbi is calling upon the New York Police Department to guard every synagogue in the city.
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz, spiritual leader of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, a leading Orthodox congregation, said providing such protection is “not a Jewish responsibility, it is a government responsibility.”
“As a community, we need to say it is outrageous that Jews in America need to spend millions upon millions of dollars on security,” the rabbi noted. “This is essentially a tax on the community that is levied by anti-Semites. This is wrong and unacceptable. We know we have to do it, but we have to make it clear that it is unacceptable. The government should provide proper police protection during hours of worship.”
Rabbi Steinmetz pointed out that this is “being done in several countries in Europe; it is a model the U.S. needs to adopt as well.”
The World Jewish Congress has been researching since late 2016 how key countries in Europe are providing for the physical security of its countries’ Jewish population, which the WJC said is facing the greatest threat of physical violence since Nazi Germany. Its representatives, including former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, have been meeting with government policy makers and diplomats, police and intelligence officials, rabbis and students.
But part of the challenge in providing such police protection here is the thousands of synagogues in the city, noted David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.
“In one police precinct alone in Williamsburg there are 111 synagogues and there are just over 100 cops assigned to that precinct,” he said. “It would take money to significantly increase the size of the NYPD.”
He added that churches and mosques would also have to be protected because they too have been targeted by gunmen and arsonists, such as the man who was caught last month trying to enter St. Patrick’s Cathedral carrying two five-gallon cans of gasoline.
“There are now people who are looking for options to increase the security of houses of worship, and we are looking at both public and private funding to do so,” Pollock said.
On Tuesday, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Upper East Side) met with members of the New York Board of Rabbis. She later said in a statement: “In the wake of the tragic shootings at synagogues in Poway and Pittsburgh, the attempt on St. Patrick’s Cathedral and other attacks on houses of worship, it’s clear that security equipment alone will not keep people safe. I’m glad that the $50 million in grants offered under the Department of Homeland Security’s nonprofit organization grant program is helping organizations acquire equipment and training, but we need to work with law enforcement to find better ways to address the needs of our institutions. I am writing to [Police] Commissioner [James] O’Neill to urge him to meet with us to discuss ways to work together to enhance security.”
Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, the rabbinical board’s executive vice president, said there must be a coordinated effort on the federal, state and city level to address this surge of anti-Semitic violence.
“There needs to be a meeting of all the stakeholders to launch a collaborative effort to confront the security challenges facing all of us,” he said, adding that this is an issue facing not only synagogues but Jewish community centers, Jewish museums and “other places where Jews gather.”
One Suffolk County synagogue that always kept its door unlocked 20 minutes before the morning minyan is now keeping it locked, and there is a much higher level of security based upon the recommendations of the police and the synagogue’s security team.
“We undergo periodic reviews of building security and are constantly upgrading every detail of our security — from the building itself to security personnel, lighting and cameras,” explained Rabbi Howard Buechler, spiritual leader of the Dix Hills Jewish Center. “We want our building to be warm and welcoming, and at the same time people should feel safe and secure.”
The Anti-Defamation League last week expressed concern about an 82 percent increase in anti-Semitic hate crimes during the first four months of this year in New York City. It said this figure appeared to be consistent with a 170 percent increase in the number of reported anti-Semitic incidents statewide from the third to the fourth quarter of 2018. And in response to the continuing spate of assaults on Jews in Brooklyn, the ADL last week offered a reward of up to $5,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those who assaulted a Jewish man in Williamsburg last Saturday afternoon. Anyone with information was asked to call the NYPD Crime Stoppers Hotline, 800-577-TIPS.
Synagogues are asking their members for donations to pay for enhanced security. The Chabad of Southampton Jewish Center, for instance, said in an email that the cost of its “enhanced year-round synagogue security is close to $100,000 per year and is not currently covered by our annual operating budget.”
The increasing frequency of shootings at synagogues, churches and mosques has led the country’s leading insurer of houses of worship to consider imposing a premium on its “catastrophic violence” coverage that since 2001 has been included at no extra cost, while other insurance companies added “active shooter” coverage about two years ago.
Paul Felsen, the owner of Felsen Insurance Services in Denville, N.J., said although there has been much interest in the coverage lately, “when they see the cost between $2,500 and $4,000, they back off. We got more calls in the last week; an incident is what triggers interest.”
He was referring to the April 27 shooting at the Chabad of Poway in California in which a 60-year-old woman congregant was shot and killed by a lone gunman. Three others, including the rabbi, were wounded. It was the second shooting at a synagogue in six months. Last Oct. 27, a gunman entered Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh during Shabbat services and opened fire, killing 11 congregants and wounding seven.
Edward Hancock, vice president-chief underwriting officer at Church Mutual Insurance Co., told The Jewish Week that when his company first offered “catastrophic violence” coverage in 2001 at no charge to the houses of worship it insured, it was provided as a “kind of window dressing. But now that we have sustained losses and because of its increasing frequency, we will have to charge a premium.”
He declined to say which churches his company insured that were involved in shootings, but he said one was in Texas. A mass shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in November 2017, left 26 people dead.
Hancock said his company insures about 85,000 religious institutions in all 50 states and the District of Columbia — twice the number of any other insurance company. Its basic policy includes liability coverage of up to $300,000 for any one event.
Paul Marshall, who heads the active shooter insurance program for McGowan Program Administrators in Cleveland, said his company underwrites policies for AXA XL and for Lloyds of London. It started the program in 2016 and now covers about 1,500 institutions, including 100 synagogues, covering such things as medical or dental expenses, rehabilitation expenses, death benefits, disability coverage, funeral-burial expenses, victim lawsuits, building repairs or replacement, counseling and psychiatric care, public relations counsel and crisis consultant experts.
Rabbi Steinmetz of Kehilath Jeshurun had some final words of advice to politicians: “Don’t send us speeches, send us security.”