Synagogues have to balance security with remaining welcoming, a Texas rabbi says

Synagogues have to balance security with remaining welcoming, a Texas rabbi says

1:54pm Jan 18, 2022
Congregation Beth Israel synagogue on Monday in Colleyville, Texas, where a 44-year-old British national held four people hostage for more than 10 hours over the weekend.
Congregation Beth Israel synagogue on Monday in Colleyville, Texas, where a 44-year-old British national held four people hostage for more than 10 hours over the weekend.
Emil Lippe / Getty Images

What security measures need to be in place for someone to worship safely?

The nation's attention has been on that question this week after a gunman held four people hostage for 10 hours in a Texas synagogue on Saturday. But for many American Jews, added security measures have been seen as essential to worship for years, and with them comes the question of how to implement the measures while remaining open and welcoming.

As antisemitism has risen in recent years across the U.S., many synagogues have responded by upping safety measures and training congregants on how to respond to possible threats. For many, Saturday's attack recalled the 2018 attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, when 11 worshippers were murdered.

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker was one of the captives held at Congregation Beth Israel over the weekend. He says instruction from the FBI and other groups on how to respond to an active shooter situation helped him and the other congregants escape safely.

"Over the years, my congregation and I have participated in multiple security courses from the Colleyville Police Department, the FBI, the Anti-Defamation League, and Secure Community Network. We are alive today because of that education," said Cytron-Walker in a statement on Sunday.

"I encourage all Jewish congregations, religious groups, schools, and others to participate in active-shooter and security courses."

Cytron-Walker says he threw a chair at the gunman and quickly ushered the two remaining hostages out of a nearby door and to safety; another hostage had been released earlier in the day. All four of the captives escaped unharmed. The alleged gunman, Malik Faisal Akram, 44, died on the scene.

Rabbi Andrew Marc Paley of Temple Shalom in Dallas told Morning Edition his synagogue has given serious thought to safety measures as well.

Congregations must navigate a delicate balancing act between having strong security and still being open and welcoming to all types of people, Paley told NPR's Steve Inskeep. Paley says his synagogue coordinates with local authorities and has regular security on the grounds.

"We want to be welcoming, we want to encourage people to come in, we want to be a sanctuary, and at the same time, cognizant of the fact that there are real threats to real communities," Paley said. "And so balancing how that's done, under what circumstances, is tricky. It's not always successful. Sometimes we are on the side of being overly cautious, but being overly cautious saves lives."

Faith communities and others across the country are decrying the attack over the weekend as blatantly antisemitic at a time when cases of hate-fueled assaults on Jews are rising. The Anti-Defamation League reports antisemitic incidents are being recorded at record levels and Jews are consistently the most targeted religious group in the country.

In 2020, the Anti-Defamation League tracked a 40% increase in reported antisemitic incidents at Jewish institutions including synagogues, community centers and schools, compared to 2019.

This story originally appeared in the Morning Edition live blog.

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The rabbi who led his congregants out of a hostage situation last weekend says training made the difference. Charlie Cytron-Walker spoke with CBS.


CHARLIE CYTRON-WALKER: They really teach you in those moments that when your life is threatened, you need to do whatever you can to get to safety. You need to do whatever you can to get out.

INSKEEP: Many synagogues have to give serious thought to security in this country, and that includes Temple Shalom in nearby Dallas. Rabbi Andrew Marc Paley is the leader there, and he's on the line. Rabbi, welcome to the program.

ANDREW MARC PALEY: Thank you. Good morning.

INSKEEP: Strange to say, but when news spread of this hostage-taking last weekend, were you surprised?

PALEY: There's a moment when you're surprised, and then you're not surprised. It's a scene we've seen time and time again. It's just terrifying.

INSKEEP: And is this something that your synagogue has had to prepare for over the years?

PALEY: We try to keep our community as safe as possible, and we prepare for the eventualities as best we can.

INSKEEP: Is this something that gets openly discussed among congregants, that - is it an occasional subject of discussion, is it a constant subject of discussion that you feel that you're part of a community that may be under threat?

PALEY: Well, for the past number of years, with the rise of anti-Semitism, the incidents that have increased over the course of the country, it is on people's minds. And it's an awareness that we keep as we go about doing the business of our community.

INSKEEP: What kind of security do you have at your synagogue?

PALEY: Well, we have multiple layers of security. We have a lay group - a task force, if you will. We have coordination and collaboration with the local authorities. We have regular security on the premises. So it's a multifaceted approach.

INSKEEP: I was thinking about this because of an article in The Atlantic this week by a security expert who's sometimes on this program who talks of giving advice to a synagogue, and the expert's advice was, harden your perimeter. You've got to be tougher. You've got to be harder to crack. And the synagogue thought about this, and they said no, thanks. We are a synagogue. We need to be welcoming. We need to let in lots of people. Do you face a dilemma like that?

PALEY: Absolutely. It's a very delicate balancing act. We want to be welcoming. We want to encourage people to come in. We want to be sanctuary and, at the same time, cognizant of the fact that there are real threats to real communities. And so balancing how that's done under what circumstances is tricky, and it's not always successful. Sometimes we err on the side of being overly cautious, but being overly cautious saves lives.

INSKEEP: What did you think about as you considered and learned the details of the rabbi's decision in the hostage situation to let in the man who seemed to be someone who needed shelter, who needed help and turned out to be a gunman?

PALEY: Well, that is a perfect example of Rabbi Cytron-Walker. He is a kind and generous person. Of course, he would do that. That makes perfect sense. And the fact that he would try to create a community of welcome is exactly who he is and what's he about - what he's about and, at the same time, endemic of the situation and the complexities of trying to keep a community safe when you really don't know.

INSKEEP: I'm also thinking about the level of anti-Semitism that is revealed here. Now, we're dealing with a disturbed individual who is dead, and so we may learn more or may not learn more about what was in this person's head, and in any event, it was one person, and yet his logic seemed to be, if I just grab some Jews, they're going to fix my issue. I mean, it's truly a horrifying thought to cross someone's mind. Do you think that is a widespread viewpoint that you have to deal with?

PALEY: I think experience just demonstrates that that is the case, that the location of his synagogue is not in a random place. You'd have to go there for a specific purpose at a specific time for this specific incident. So the fact that there was a sense of target here is troubling and disturbing and, again, just another feature of the awareness and the sort of system of issues that have to be considered when keeping your community safe.

INSKEEP: What kind of support, if any, do you want from your fellow Americans?

PALEY: I think in this time there's a really powerful optic that was demonstrated within moments of this terrible incident unfolding, and that is communities all across the country, particularly in the Dallas Metroplex area, communities of faith, who took the time to stand up and be present, even in as much as they couldn't actually do anything, and knowing that there were people all across the country, indeed all across the world, provided a sense of comfort and support, saying that you're not alone. And that image and that presence really, really matters. And I know that there are so many people thinking and praying and offering support. Those efforts are so meaningful and, really, so powerful. To know that you're not alone really matters.

INSKEEP: Rabbi Andrew Marc Paley - Dallas, Texas. Thank you so much, sir.

PALEY: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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