| Magazine Feature |

Safe in Shul

Wake-up call for America's shuls

Last Saturday’s assault on a Texas temple and subsequent ten-hour hostage situation was up for interpretation by various agencies. To the UK Telegraph, it was an attack by someone “with an English accent.” To the Associated Press, it was an attack “specifically focused on an issue not connected to the Jewish community,” though it happened on a Jewish site and not a McDonalds. To the BBC, it was a “hostage scare” [quotes are theirs] situation.

To the Jewish community, though, most of whom did not find out about it until it was nearly over, the attack was yet another in a string of deadly incidents that introduced us to places we might not have known about — places such as Poway, Squirrel Hill, and Greenville. Now we’ve learned about the Dallas-Fort Worth suburb of Colleyville. While no innocent people died in the weekend incident, it brought home yet again the fragility shuls face in balancing the desire to convey an open door for davening, learning, or just a cup of coffee, with the sudden demand for security and vigilance.

The Reform Congregation Beth Israel had already realized the need to take security more seriously, and this past summer even underwent a training exercise offered by the Secure Community Network (also called SCN and pronounced “Scan”). The Network, established about 25 years ago by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Jewish Federations of North America, works with any community requesting security advice and assistance.

“That congregation,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, a Conference vice chairman and founder of the network, “was part of a training this past summer. People were saying how prepared and professional they seemed.”

One security expert, though, told Mishpacha that while he is grateful no one was hurt, the fact that the terrorist had been able to gain access, and that he was later shot dead, meant that protocols were not followed.

“We have to be thankful that none of the hostages were killed — the loss of life would have been devastating,” said Akiva Sandler, a Toronto-based security expert who specializes in shuls and campuses. “But we now have to take a look at what happened. Once a terrorist enters the building, that’s already a failure. Also, ideally, this type of event should end with the perpetrator being taken alive, so that he can remain a source of information about motives and accomplices.”

Sandler, whose deep South African accent reveals his country of birth, served in an Israeli counterterrorism unit and has since taken his expertise to dozens of Jewish sites across the United States and Canada. He participated in an FBI briefing to the SCN after the attack, where investigators filled in whatever information they had.

Scouting the Target

Malik Faisal Akram, 44, arrived from his native Britain about two weeks ago and landed at Dallas / Fort Worth International Airport. A British citizen, he was apparently there to gain the freedom of convicted terrorist Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist with ties to Al-Qaeda who attempted to murder members of a US team sent to interrogate her in 2008. She is serving an 86-year sentence at the nearby Carswell Air Force Base.

Akram spent at least one night at a homeless shelter and picked up a gun by buying it “off the street,” President Joe Biden said on Sunday. Sandler said he would like to research further what the terrorist did at the shelter, which is home to drug addicts.

“It would be interesting to see if there is a connection between his spending the night at a homeless shelter, where drug addicts are located, and how he got his firearm,” Sandler said. “Drug addicts usually are armed to protect the drug dealers. He probably spent the night there to connect to criminal elements from where he could get a firearm.”

But why did Akram target this particular house of worship, which is located in a sparsely populated area and did not have a large membership? Perhaps it was the Jewish site closest to the airport, from where Akram may have searched online for “Jewish site near me.”

Sandler, however, suggests that the ubiquitous livestreaming of the service may have been the clincher for the terrorist. The temple had transferred to Facebook Live for their services when the Covid pandemic struck and were still doing so at the time of the attack. There were few congregants in the temple itself, with most of them participating on the livestream.

“It is relatively easy to get online a week before and scout out the territory and know what to expect,” Sandler noted. “There have been multiple incidents of attacks online, what we call Zoom-bombing, such as posting hate or obscene material or just disrupting the program. Having a service on Zoom exposes you all the more to the outside world.”

Because of Covid fears, shuls that in recent years, due to terror and anti-Semitic threats, began locking their doors to strangers, have started leaving the doors open to allow for more social distancing.

Sandler takes a three-pronged approach to security: proactive control of the environment, preventative measures, and reactive protocols. “Most people in North America look at reactive measures, how to respond to an active attack once it had already begun,” he says, “but I consider it a problem if you’re already up to the stage of the criminal act.”

On that crucial first step, the temple dropped the ball. Akram was an unfamiliar face, but indicating that he needed shelter, he was allowed into the building, where he promptly took all those inside hostage. Those inside no longer had control over the environment — instead, Akram and his weapon did. And for the first half hour, anyone with internet access could listen in as clergy and police negotiated with him, with the terrorist warning in a voice that sounded frantic that he had wired the place with explosives and was going to die. Sandler says it was troubling that it took Facebook 30 minutes until the livestream was shut down.

“He was foul-mouthed. He was swearing. He was saying anti-Semitic tropes,” said Stacey Silverman, a service attendee. “He was talking about Israel, Palestine, Islam, and that he had a gun. He implied he had a bomb in his backpack, and that he could, you know, let it loose at any minute. It was horrifying.”

While congregants may have erred in letting in a self-described homeless man, the relationship with local law enforcement, worked out during the summer training, went flawlessly, Hoenlein marveled. Police kept them abreast of news and worked to notify Jewish communities and key leaders around the country just as Shabbos was ending.

“The Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security called me right after Havdalah,” said Rabbi Moshe Hauer, the executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, which has hundreds of shul affiliates around the United States and Canada.

Rabbi Hauer described an avalanche of calls by concerned shul members on Motzaei Shabbos and Sunday. “Without sounding dramatic, there was great concern expressed and a desire to understand the role of government. Those were the kind of calls that came in,” Rabbi Hauer said. “These events could happen in every identifiable Jewish neighborhood. We have a very disproportionate number of hate crimes.”

Deterrence First

The question of whether this incident will spur shuls and Jewish sites to become more security-minded — “more like Europe,” where shuls are veritable fortresses, with security guards and entry cards, one observer said — is a question being debated. There is also the question of how much traffic a shul gets: Are there minyanim and activities going on for much of the day, or are services relegated to certain times, maybe even just once a week?

Since the Poway shooting on Pesach of 2019, followed later that year by a knifing spree at a shul in Monsey on Chanukah, most shuls in the heavy-trafficked neighborhoods of Boro Park, Flatbush, Williamsburg, and Lakewood have had combination locks installed. Sandler says that while it is not a foolproof mechanism, it has a sufficient deterrence in a large neighborhood with many shuls.

“If you have a door that is open with a big sign saying that our services are at such and such a time, you’re already at a disadvantage,” he explains. “If you’re writing in Hebrew, most Arabic speakers with be able to figure out what’s written there. But once you lock the door, you’re at least 30 percent more protected than you were before. Remember, you don’t need 100 percent protection, just better than it was. That will deter most attackers. A perpetrator will choose the easiest target, and any level of protection will make you the more difficult target and will lead him to go choose a different target.”

Sandler says that there are a variety of ways to protect a site, acting proactively being the best method. It is easier to fight off terrorist by diverting him from the area completely, which is his Plan A, or by not allowing him entry, which is Plan B. Plan C is keeping the trespasser off balance so he doesn’t execute his nefarious plot.

While this particular attack was perpetrated by a Muslim, a majority of acts of violence against Jews are done by rightwing extremists who will not be able to decipher Hebrew messages on the front door.

Hoenlein says it’s frustrating to see shuls and other sites not take a minimal level of protection, especially when the costs are minimal and the methods aren’t invasive. He pointed to Monsey, which in the past few years has seen a rise in shuls training members as “shul marshals.”

“True, we don’t want to see shuls becoming rifle clubs, but there are a lot of things that can be done,” he says. “Things such as locking the doors, knowing where the exits are, knowing how to respond in various circumstances, having a point person for security that police know they can contact.

“I’ve been advocating for this for the last 20 years,” continues Hoenlein, who is also a leader of the Flatbush Jewish Community Coalition and takes an active role in coordinating with police there. “Some have responded to the initiative, but most didn’t. We’re not just talking about shuls. It’s JCCs, it’s yeshivahs. But shuls are obviously a very visible target. Security has to be a top priority, not just because of this incident but because what we’ve seen these past few years.”

One refrain he hears is that what happened in Poway, a suburb of San Diego, will not happen in New York. What happened in a Conservative temple in Pittsburgh will not happen in a heimishe shtibel. What happened in Jersey City, where a tiny Satmar community dwells in an overwhelmingly black neighborhood, will not happen in Lakewood.

“And some people say, we’re so out of the way, we don’t have to worry about it,” Hoenlein says. “But here is an example of a synagogue that has very few people and is not Orthodox, and yet, they were a target. It’s not about how large a community you are or whether there are other Jews nearby. Everybody has to be vigilant about this.”

He dismissed the Associated Press article maintaining the attack had nothing to do with Jews since all the attacker wanted was a fellow Muslim released from prison. “He didn’t go into a supermarket,” Hoenlein says. “The media thinks that if they don’t identify him as a Muslim, people will not realize what his intent is.

“People were saying, ‘Oh, it wasn’t really a Jewish target.’ It was absolutely a Jewish target. In their briefing, the FBI told us quite definitively that this was targeted at Jews.”


After the Fact

Hoenlein is pleading for people to take shul security seriously and not wait for another attack. “People forget about it as soon as it disappears from the headlines, especially in a case such as this one when nobody got hurt,” he relates. “Pittsburgh had an impact for a longer and more extended period, but that was when 11 people died.”

Hoenlein mentioned a statistic, revealed by the FBI last year, that 60 percent of hate crimes in New York are against Jews. Actual numbers, he said, are far greater than that because most people don’t report crimes, especially petty incidents such as harassment.

Sandler agrees. “Based on what I hear and what I’m called in for, the threat against the Jewish community today is greater than it has ever been.”

Compounding the problem, the pandemic — which early on led to a sharp decrease in anti-Semitic incidents because of the lockdown — has now triggered a massive increase in the world’s oldest hatred. People are spending more time indoors and reaching out to new internet friends, some of whom have malintent.

It is unclear if Akram was a lone wolf or if he had accomplices. British authorities in Manchester early this week arrested two teenagers in connection with the attack, but did not reveal what that association was.

Sandler says that he’s had a much higher volume of calls since the Texas hostage incident. The federal government in Canada used to pay half the security costs religious sites incurred for projects up to $200,000. They doubled it in October, and Sandler says he received a lot more calls than usual. He did not notice an appreciable increase after Governor Kathy Hochul released $25 million for New York’s Jewish organizations.

“Whenever there is an attack,” he says, “people are concerned. After Pittsburgh there was a huge, huge interest by Jewish organizations in security. Everyone likes to react after the fact. We have to act now so that it doesn’t happen again in the future.”

Rabbi Hauer observed that change has been slowly happening, and he would like to see more government funding to speed up that change.

“Not long ago it was unusual to find a shul with a lock and combination that required someone to unlock it in order to get in,” Rabbi Hauer says, “but things have changed.”

He mentioned an unprecedented cooperation the community has today with the departments of Justice and Homeland Security, demonstrated by the behind-the-scenes interaction with federal law enforcement officials as last weekend’s attack unfolded.

“The security funding, on the federal, state, and city level, does not come by itself. It comes after a strong lobbying operation,” he said, adding, “Whenever this happens, it reminds us again that we should be careful. Hopefully this will bring an elevated level of vigilance.”



Years back, “security rota” outside school in the UK took the form of a class mother taking her turn dutifully manning the school gates (although it was mainly with the remit of preventing children from running out). For today’s children, however, uniformed security guards keeping a watchful eye at the school gates is the norm they’ve grown up with. Equipped with two-way radios (no guns — remember, this is the UK), they are trained to spot anything out the ordinary and respond accordingly.

This new normal for Jewish school children across the UK was instituted by Prime Minister David Cameron. In one of his first announcements after forming a coalition government in 2010, he set out a ground-breaking initiative demonstrating the state’s commitment to the Jewish community, delivering a new £2 million funding package for security measures at Jewish schools. For the first time, highly visible security personnel would man the doors. Although at the time the funding excluded many chareidi schools that were ineligible as they fell outside of the state education system, it was nevertheless a positive step and a bold political statement.

In the run-up to the scheme’s planned 2015 expiry date, the prime minister hinted at his intention to continue the funding. It would be Paris’s Hypercacher kosher supermarket siege in January and Copenhagen’s Great Synagogue attack in February of that year — both deadly incidents — that left no room for doubt in Cameron’s mind as to the pressing need. The funding was increased to include all schools, including the many mosdos operating as independents (outside of the state sector), as well as some shuls and other communal buildings. What began perhaps as a political goodwill gesture has mushroomed, and with subsequent Downing Street incumbents consistently renewing and increasing the Jewish Community Protective Security Grant, the annual allocation now stands at £14 million.

Dave Rich, director of policy at the Community Security Trust, the Anglo-Jewish charity that draws down the funding from government, has been observing the UK scene for close to three decades. “We are fortunate to have a large and active Jewish community, and because the grant is not big enough to cover security every day at every building, our operating model is to prioritize schools, and then shuls,” says Rich, who recently authored The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and AntiSemitism. “The allocation varies from place to place and depends on assessment.”

Across the Channel in Antwerp, there is no visible security outside shuls — that’s because you can’t even find the shuls. They are hidden behind security doors without visible markings, guarded by security cameras. Added to that, fully armed soldiers in combat fatigues patrolling the streets of the Jewish neighborhood is a common sight. Following the highly coordinated 2016 Brussels attacks perpetrated by Islamic State — a triple suicide bombing targeting Brussels Airport and a metro station during which 32 died and hundreds more were injured — authorities offered the Jewish community military protection. The sight of armed military personnel sharing the sidewalks with Antwerp residents became part and parcel of daily life.

However, as David Damen, Mishpacha’s Belgium correspondent explains, the government assessed that the increased presence was no longer necessary, and the protection lapsed in 2020. “Shemira, the organization working to ensure the kehillah’s ongoing security, continues to work with the authorities on installing bomb-proof doors, number access locks, and upgraded CCTV systems in shuls. But apart from that, it’s life as normal.”

With its extensive experience running security at key communal locations, can the UK Jewish community contribute its knowledge to helping the US?

“Every country and every environment is different,” comments Dave Rich. “Taking the UK model and simply transplanting it to the United States would bring with it a whole host of challenges. For example, whereas in the UK it’s not lawful to carry guns, and the use of firearms does not form a part of our planning or discussion around responding to attacks, in the US, many citizens take full advantage of their constitutional right to carry arms, which alters the entire dynamic.”

But regardless of the challenges, with the vulnerabilities of synagogues in the United States having been exposed numerous times over the past few years, often with tragic consequences, this may be a conversation whose time has come.

—Yoni Klajn


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 895)

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