[Note: Today, the Forward published an edited version of an OpEd I submitted. The full version of my submission follows.]
Like anyone who cherishes life and religious freedom, the news of the synagogue shooting in Poway, California a few days ago, was a scary reminder that we live in a nation where the flames of white nationalism burn bright and snuff out lives on an all too regular basis. As the second synagogue shooting in six months, the Poway shooting hammered home the frightening reality that just as Black churches continue to be burned in our nation, the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh can no longer be considered a one time occurrence.
After the Tree of Life shooting, my synagogue, Congregation Shaarei Shamayim, hosted a multi-denominational, inclusive vigil. Hundreds of community members of different races and religious backgrounds came to show their support. Notably, we did not consider it necessary to hire security guards for the vigil and we felt safer because so many members of our community came to show their support.
After the immediate response of holding the vigil, in my role as President of my synagogue, I realized that it was important to convene a Safety Committee, as we had never felt the need to formalize a committee to engage in discussions about our collective safety. Of course, that does not mean that we had buried our heads in the sand. Even before convening our new Safety Committee, we had hosted Active Shooter trainings put on by the Madison police department. These trainings do save lives, and appear to have done so in Poway. Of course, these trainings fit well within the norm of Jewish culture since we are a people that prides itself on education.
At the first meeting of our Safety Committee, each member shared their ideas and concerns about taking steps that would help to protect our members and guests in case of an emergency, without straying from our inclusive mission. In fact, our tag line is, Inclusive Jewish Community. When we describe congregation, we state that, Shaarei Shamayim is a growing, open, pluralistic congregation. We believe that Judaism is a means for bringing justice, holiness and joy to our world.
We invite people of varied Jewish backgrounds to join us. We are LGBTQ and interfaith inclusive, strive to accommodate people with disabilities, and welcome Jews-by-choice and Jews of color. We embrace community.
We believe that having difficult conversations, grounded in deep listening and respect for others, is essential to creating a vibrant community. Rather than pushing controversial issues away, we study, debate, and share ideas so that we can all grow wiser.
Thus, our Safety committee had our community’s values front and center as it contemplated how to better protect the safety of our members and guests. Our committee includes a member who has received Department of Homeland Security training on emergency planning, as well as a member who owns and operates her own self-defense martial arts school. In fact, these security experts helped us understand that locking our doors and/or hiring armed guards, would not enhance our safety. To the contrary, as we saw in Parkland, even schools with police officers stationed on site are not a guarantee of safety.
Forward’s recent article, American Synagogues Can’t Keep their Doors Open Anymore, expert say, was deemed so important to the publication that it e-mailed the article in its entirety to everyone on its e-mail list. Not only does that article recommend locking synagogue doors, it recommends posting armed guards at those locked doors.
To that, Shaarei Shamayim, says not in our house. We are instituting our new Shomer program, but our shomrim will not be armed, nor will they be guards. Rather, our Safety Committee, recognized that the most likely emergency we may encounter is a medical event, such as a heart attack. In fact, a few years ago, one of our members holding the Torah, during Kol Nidre, fainted, and members helped her get medical attention, while securing the Torah.
We believe that the biggest risk to our safety is chaos. So, we will train our shomrim to be knowledgeable of our building’s emergency exits, the location of the defibrillators, coordinating exits if necessary and welcoming emergency responders if needed. Of course, they will keep an eye out for dangerous intruders. But in that case, their response will be to call 911, and notify members of the danger and need to evacuate.
In formulating our congregation’s Safety plan, we agreed upon the values of training, being prepared, rejecting racial profiling, and welcoming diverse people to our community. Our plan acknowledges that we have a responsibility to maintain a safe and welcoming space for our entire community. We understand that hate crimes are one, but not the only, concern to address in our safety plan. Creating a safe community includes planning for health emergencies, extreme weather events, and protecting our children’s safety. This includes coordination with police and emergency services, and other Jewish community organizations. As Jews we stand in solidarity with the synagogues and other communities that have been victimized in recent hate-fueled attacks, including mosques in New Zealand, black churches in Louisiana, and churches in Sri Lanka. We will continue resisting hate by continuing to be a welcoming and open community, not by closing our doors and posting arm guards at our entrance.
For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.