Securing U.S. synagogues

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: securing synagogues in the United States.

Anti-Semitism is on the rise here and around the world. Two deadly attacks on synagogues in Pittsburgh and San Diego in the last year left 12 people dead.

NICK EICHER, HOST: Those incidents left American Jews feeling especially vulnerable. Jewish congregations across the country no longer view security measures as optional. WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg has our story.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: A security camera trains its eye on the front doors of Congregation Kol Ami—a Conservative and Reformed synagogue in Salt Lake City, Utah. 

The front doors are locked at all times. Visitors must identify themselves before being allowed to enter. 

RECEPTIONIST: Just go in your left. 


Rabbi Samuel Spector says over the last few years Kol Ami implemented other security measures as well. 

SPECTOR: Out here you see these pillars things right there. We put those in to prevent a car from coming in here and ramming us.

Anti-Semitic threats are nothing new to the congregation. Five years ago someone shot out the synagogue’s windows in the middle of the night. 

SPECTOR: We have up here in our window a bullet hole. 

Rabbi Spector says the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh last fall has heightened his congregation’s fear of an attack.

SPECTOR: Pittsburgh happened and I think that there was kind of a mindset before that of all that would never happen in Utah. We had to ask ourselves how are we any different than Pittsburgh. We’re not.

So Kol Ami is doing even more to secure itself. In the fall, the congregation did active shooter training with local police. Congregants also agreed to pay a $60 dollar annual security fee. Those fees will pay for more security guards. 

The synagogue has also applied for a grant the Department of Homeland Security sets aside for synagogues. If Kol Ami gets the grant, it will use the funds to install better security infrastructure. 

Jason Friedman is the executive director of Community Security Service, a non-profit that trains volunteers on how to protect their Jewish communities. Friedman says over the last year, his organization has received hundreds of emails and phone calls from American Jews looking for help. Demand hasn’t slowed down. 

FRIEDMAN: The security through obscurity is no longer relevant as we seen in attacks in places like the suburbs of Pittsburgh, suburbs of San Diego. You have these self radicalized people acting locally.

Raziel Cohen is the lead instructor of National Defensive Firearms Training. He’s also seeing a similar increase in demand for security training, but not just from synagogues. He’s also getting calls from churches and mosques. Cohen says this is an indicator that all religions are feeling under threat.  

COHEN: We still live in the United States of America, which means we do have freedom of religion. A huge part of every single religion is the history of how it was tried to be damaged or destroyed or taken away from people. And this generation isn’t any different. The question is how are we going to defend and continue to use the tools that we have to protect and preserve the religion that we choose to keep.  

Chaim Steinmetz is a rabbi at Kehilath Jeshurun, an Orthodox synagogue in New York City’s Upper East Side. He says as the security threats increase, so does the financial burden on congregations. His synagogue now spends 10 percent of its annual budget on security. 

STEINMETZ: There’s, there’s so many different things that we could be doing with that money. Absolutely. 

Steinmetz says while spending money on security is annoying, at least his congregation can afford to do it. He worries about smaller synagogues that may struggle to pay for security measures.

STEINMETZ: You really don’t have the money to pay for a security guard. You’re paying your electric bill, you’re paying your rabbi salary, you’re paying your secretary salary. I’m looking at my synagogue’s budget and I’m seeing what’s, what’s devoted to security. And I know that the neighboring churches don’t devote anywhere near this amount of money to security.

Meanwhile, in Salt Lake City, Rabbi Samuel Spector believes violent attacks and threats of violence are a part of a larger strategy. If synagogues have to spend enough money on security everytime they gather, congregations may just not come together as often. 

SPECTOR: Their bigger goal is to let us know we aren’t safe in our synagogues. Their hope is that then people won’t come here, and they’ll financially bankrupt us… which means we can’t continue to pass our Torah.

But as both Rabbis Steinmetz and Spector point out, anti-Semitism has always existed and yet the Jewish people have always found a way to press on. 

SPECTOR:  The reason that Judaism has continued despite thousands of years of more powerful nations actively oppressing us and trying to wipe us out is that we won’t let Judaism die.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg reporting from Salt Lake City, Utah.

(Photo/Congregation Kol Ami)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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