Synagogue Shooting Keeps Religious Leaders on Edge: ‘No One Should Be Gunned Down in Worship’

POWAY, Calif. — The rabbi had just finished comforting a congregant as she prepared to say the traditional prayer for the dead in honor of her mother when a loud crack rang out in his synagogue.

It was about halfway through the Sabbath service on Saturday when a gunman turned what was supposed to be a time of solace into a day of horror. The rabbi, Yisroel Goldstein, turned quickly to see the body of the woman, Lori Gilbert Kaye, 60, slumped on the floor. He began to rush toward her when he caught sight of several small children watching as the gunman unleashed the attack on Chabad of Poway.

“My instinct was to go to her, but I turned toward a doorway and these little kids were there, so scared,” he said. By then, Rabbi Goldstein had been shot in both hands. “I just grabbed them with my bloody fingers. They were screaming and I was shouting.”

As Rabbi Goldstein ran out with the children, Ms. Kaye’s husband, a physician, ran in to help. But the second he recognized it was his wife on the ground, he fainted. Their only daughter stood a few feet away sobbing in shock, Rabbi Goldstein said.

“It was horrific, utter horror,” Rabbi Goldstein said. “It was like images out of the Holocaust.”

It was only a few months ago, after another hate-fueled attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh that Rabbi Goldstein completed training for a situation just like this. But it seemed impossible to imagine it would ever happen to his own congregation, he said.

Now Rabbi Goldstein and leaders like him in synagogues and other houses of worship are confronting their new reality. Just like school principals across the country, religious leaders now must take measures to prepare for the horrors of mass shootings. As recent attacks have shown, prayer services are increasingly vulnerable.

The shooting in Poway, about 25 miles north of San Diego, coincides with a significant spike in hate crimes, including acts of anti-Semitism. The gunman, whom police identified as John Earnest, 19, wrote a manifesto echoing the same kind of white supremacist views as the shooters in the attacks in the synagogue in Pittsburgh and on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The latest attack came one week after mass bombings at churches and hotels in Sri Lanka left hundreds dead.

On Sunday, Mr. Earnest was booked on one charge of murder — Ms. Kaye was killed in the attack — and three charges of attempted murder.

Jewish institutions have invested much more significantly in security in the last few years, using private armed security guards, cameras, volunteer patrols and other measures, said Jerry Silverman, the president of the Jewish Federations of North America.

“There’s been a lot to take in already, and yesterday took the Defcon to a whole other level,” he said. “It all has definitely put the Jewish community on alert.”

As hate-filled screeds spewing white nationalist conspiracy theories have ricocheted around the internet, hate crimes have increased in the past few years, according to the F.B.I. And all over the country and the world, houses of worship have tightened security in response to terrorist attacks.

African-American churches have long had to consider the probability of security threats, but recent events are showing many white congregations that their past sense of safety is false, said the Rev. Ronell Howard, pastor of Christ United Methodist Church of Piscataway, N.J.

“When I tell my Caucasian colleagues black churches have always had security as long as I can remember, they are always flabbergasted,” Ms. Howard, 50, said.

Ultimately the increasing violence is less about religion than about fomenting fear and keeping people in a heightened sense of vulnerability, she said. People of faith need to reiterate one message, she said: “We were not given from God this spirit of fear, but of love and of courage.”

The sense of fear and need for increased security is being felt well beyond the United States.

The Sri Lankan government has said the church bombings may have been in retaliation for the mosque shootings in New Zealand. And the day after the Christchurch terror attack, Shabbat services at synagogues across the country were canceled on the advice of the police. While New Zealand police are no longer providing round-the-clock armed guard at mosques, as they did immediately after the shooting, the mosques that were attacked still have protection.

Barry Werber, who survived the Tree of Life shooting, said he could hardly believe that any service would meet without security. As sad as it makes him, meeting without armed security is now simply shortsighted, he said.

“I had family in the concentration camps; they came over to escape that,” said Mr. Werber, 77, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Poland. “Now it’s raising its head all over again.”

Since the October attack, two of the congregations that had met at Tree of Life have been meeting in chapels at a synagogue nearby — and armed security guards now greet people at the doors.

“How do you not provide that?” asked Aaron Bisno, the rabbi of the host synagogue. This heightened security protocol does comes with a steep price. Two security guards for 13 hours costs more than $1,000 a day, Rabbi Bisno said, a cost prohibitive for many congregations, especially smaller ones. That is particularly demanding these days, when memberships at churches and synagogues nationwide are dwindling in numbers and resources.

Since the Pittsburgh attack in October, the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York has conducted over 200 security assessments of synagogues by request and has received inquires from additional synagogues since Saturday.

Dozens of synagogues in the city now employ armed security guards, while others which cannot afford to hire armed security have created plans involving blockading attackers from entering synagogue doors and strategies for evacuation in case of an active shooter, according to David Pollock, director of public policy and security at the council.

“Nationally our law enforcement agencies need to step up and acknowledge that our houses of worship are being preyed upon,” said Eric L. Adams, the Brooklyn borough president and a retired captain of the New York Police Department. “Now that we have this new level of clear targeting of houses of worship we have to step outside our box and reshape how we think proactively about security.”

On Sunday morning, Rabbi Goldstein thought of the young children who witnessed the attack, including his 4-year-old granddaughter. “She doesn’t deserve that. Our people, we’ve been through hell and back. I need our Jewish brethren to stand strong and really, really be proud of our heritage.”


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