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Focus on Issues: Jewish Institutions Balance Security with Openness Before High Holidays

August 20, 1999
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Armed security guards, doors locked during business hours, mandatory parking decals, name tags for visitors, staff trained in responding to bomb threats and regular security audits by the police.

Such measures have long been routine at large Jewish organizations, particularly ones related to Israel, but smaller institutions are now stepping up their security following a rash of anti-Semitic attacks around the United States.

With the High Holidays and the start of the school year approaching, synagogues and day schools are being pressured to act quickly.

Many say they are taking highly visible measures after hearing that Burford O’Neal Furrow, the gunman who opened fire in the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles earlier this month, had targeted the center after being deterred by heavy security at the Simon Wiesenthal Center and University of Judaism.

Riccardo di Capua, president of the Conservative Temple Sinai of Hollywood, Fla., said he not only feared, but was certain, that there would be more attacks on Jews before the High Holidays are over.

“The bar has been raised, so if you have terrorist one that has done some act, terrorist two will try to outdo the first one,” he said.

Although he would not disclose the security measures his congregation was taking, di Capua said, “We cannot be complacent about this. We must be alert and aware that something might happen and treat it as an imminent danger.”

However, others say they are reluctant to turn their buildings into “fortresses.”

Jeff Herzog, executive director of Reform Temple Rodef Shalom in Pittsburgh, noted that while security measures are in place, “if someone really wants to do something to you, they can.

“I know some of my colleagues have a guard letting people in,” he said. “We will not permit that to happen. For those who want to pray, we want to create a warm, caring environment and a guard is not that.”

The Katherine and Jacob Greenfield Hebrew Academy of Atlanta already kept doors locked at all times and required visitors to be buzzed in.

But three days after the Los Angeles shooting, the school’s board voted to keep two uniformed, armed security personnel on campus throughout the school day and require visiting parents and staff to place an identifying card in the windshields of their cars.

“I think clearly what motivated us to have specific visible security was this pronouncement of Furrow that this is a wake-up call to America to start killing Jews,” said Richard Wagner, the school’s principal.

Two of the school’s students are the children of Allen Tenenbaum, one of the victims in the late July mass shooting at a suburban Atlanta day-trading firm.

“This summer has been like a one-two punch. We got up from shiva and then we had Granada Hills,” he said, referring to the Jewish period of mourning.

Since the Los Angeles incident, the Minneapolis Jewish Day School — which is housed in a Jewish community center — has temporarily hired a guard, closed off all but one entrance and decided to have all visitors wear name tags, said Ray Levi, head of the school.

“We’ve been told that something as simple as name tags, which we believe will help people feel welcome, is a deterrent to someone who might be considering something rash,” Levi said.

“Measures will vary a great deal,” said Rabbi Robert Abramson, director of education for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

“The question isn’t whether there’ll be changes, the question is how subtle to the eye they will be,” he said. “On the one hand, one wants to make clear that there’s security, but on the other hand no one wants to scare kids.”

Reform temple presidents are also discussing security concerns in their e-mail discussion group, but “it has not been a major topic,” said Emily Grotta, director of communications for the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

“We’re also trying to make certain that our congregations don’t over-react and give the wrong message of an armed fortress,” Grotta said. “It’s kind of a balancing act.”

Mark Seal, executive vice president of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, said security would be “a real tension and challenge” for the congregations and havurot in his movement because they often hold services in buildings rented from other institutions.

“We don’t see a panic,” said Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, president of the Orthodox Union. “I’m not sure if it’s complacency or people feel they already have good relationships with their local police.”

Ganchrow, like many leaders, noted that upgrading security is expensive, and that — after taking obvious steps like locking doors and knowing how to handle bomb threats — it is difficult to know how much else is necessary or even helpful.

“We don’t have all the answers,” he said. ???

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