This came up today, sadly, after the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. The president says there should be armed guards inside. I don't know about THAT synagogue, but in fact, the synagogues I have attended over the past few years have done the following:
For high profile services - like Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur - there is a police patrol stationed just outside the doors throughout the service.
At a shul I used to attend -which has been targeted at least twice in the past few years by vandals, graffiti and offensive posters - some of the synagogue regulars (the younger, more fit ones) are now armed with handguns.
I haven't seen that at the current place, but it might be something that happens.
So - what is your experience? And how do you feel about needing armed guards in order to safely pray?
Strangely, my previous reply to this post did not show up.
It turns out that the recent events have spooked some members of my congregation so that they are pressuring the Chair to install combination locks on the doors of our building (a storefront) which would be locked even during services. The idea is that then a "shooter" can't just walk in. But I think this is a terrible idea because then we are basically turning away walk-in guests. We will have to hope that guests will stick around after encountering a locked door and wait for a member to let them in. I think this is a foolish over-reaction and my husband's response is this: "I won’t cross such a threshold; I would rather scab a picket line than pray where strangers are not welcome."
As a congregation Board member (the current Treasurer) I was part of a conference call about keeping the shul doors locked during services and installing combination locks so that members could let themselves in during services. As I was expecting, I was the only one of the four Board members on the call (the fifth didn't call in for some reason---might have had trouble doing so like I did) to vote against keeping the doors locked and installing combo locks even though two other Board members also felt that the chances of our congregation being attacked were miniscule. But they felt that they needed to bow to the fears of other members (or particularly the member who aggressively pushed for the locks, who happens to be a rather close friend )
I really do feel that whereas it seems like "doing something" must be better than doing less or not changing anything, I think that keeping the doors locked is actually going to make the most fearful people more anxious because every time they attend services they will be reminded of the potential danger (regardless of how remote it might be) so it will reinforce their fears.
I spoke with a Jewish friend who had experienced being locked out of the local Sephardic shul and waiting for a member to let him in said that it was definitely a rather unwelcoming policy. He also noted that he thinks that AME churches are much more at risk than synagogues of being attacked and yet he does not remember ever hearing about churches locking their doors as synagogues have done. (Does anyone know about a case to the contrary) He also noted that it is common in Europe for synagogues to not only have armed guards, but to demand ID and turn away almost anyone who is not a member. He happens to be a Jew by Choice, actually a patrilineal Jew who was brought up as a Christian and who converted to Judaism as a young adult. He is very observant and attended two years of rabbinical school at JTS before deciding that he wanted to learn in more depth so he is now a PhD candidate in a religious studies department with a focus on moral philosophy. Anyway, he noted that Jews seem to have a kind of cultural PTSD due to all the past persecution and genocide.
I don't know how long my husband is going to hold out with his decision to refuse to attend services if the doors are locked. I personally feel the need to make sure that someone is always at the door, and if it means being that "door opener" myself, then I currently feel like I'm going to give up a whole lot of my own davenning time and be resentful about it. People have said that there will usually be someone at the door to let people in, and it is true that there is often someone hanging around the entryway instead of in the sanctuary, but I think it is easy to assume that "someone else" is going to do it. Honestly, it is probably going to be a big headache due to people forgetting the code or not being able to punch it in right or for members who attend less than every Shabbat, let alone the occasional visitors that we do get.
Now I'm also worried that people are going insist again on a "prison-like" design for the front fascade of the storefront building that the congregation just bought and will be doing a gut-renovation on. One member wanted solid brick all the way up to 6 feet high with only a small line of windows at the top for "safety from shooters" (and that was before the Pittsburg synagogue shooting had happened). The current design is to have brick up to about 3 feet with large windows above, but frosted glass up to 6 feet so that passers-by can't just look into the sanctuary.
Local police are posting an officer outside currently, during services - and one will be there for Religious school on Sunday morning, too. The Board is meeting Tuesday to discuss security topics, ideas, options etc. We shall see. My previous shul was the target of vandalism two or three times in the past few years, and two years ago a trio of skinheads walked right in and scoped the place out, which freaked out the office staff - it was daytime, no services. They didn't return, but some of the shul members have started wearing handguns to services, which - well, it disturbs me, but I'm not sure exactly why. I guess, philosophically, I don't think 'being armed' and 'prayer service' work together very well. And at the same time, practically, I am not completely against the idea of security, even armed security - but seriously, a couple of twenty year olds with four hours of gun training and a 60- something dentist (or whatever he is) who was in the army in Vietnam - don't inspire me with a lot of confidence.
My shul has had armed guards for a couple of years now. Arms are not visible to the public, but trust me they are there. We have had electronic pass keys for paid members for a couple of years. We have just upgraded to armed security whenever there is any activity in the building (religious school, minyan, meetings, etc.). Our doors are always locked even on Shabbos. Everyone is let in through the sanctuary entrance by a security person.
Nothing has been done yet with respect to locks on our current building and I'm still hoping that stalling will enable the panic to subside at least among the members who are not usually so paranoid and are just unusually anxious because of the Pittsburg shooting.
At a "Design Committee" meeting, the idea of making the "Gan" (babysitting) room into a "safe room" by changing the previous plan for windows at a location that is currently a garage door and bricking it up to 6 feet with only small windows up high where they would be difficult to shoot out and get into the room. (This was recommended by a former FBI agent who has been hired by the Jewish Federation to help synagogues evaluate their security. Thankfully, she also said that it was fine to have larger windows in the front of the new building as long as they were laminated or had a film applied to make them shatter-resistant.) One of the members strenuously objected to bricking up the window space---maybe too forcefully, because I think she made the fearful members defensive when she used terms like "security theater". But I also did not want the change in design. Not only do I think the likelihood of a shooter entering our building is remotely small, but I also think that there aren't so many very young kids, that they couldn't be hustled outside via the door that is only about six feet from the door of the Gan room which are both in the far opposite corner from the front entrance of the building. Furthermore, I think if you truly want to make the room safer, then a second door directly to the outside should be added to the room, not a solid brick wall. Also another door would be better for fire safety since the kitchen is across the hall from the only entrance to the Gan room. So the two of us were "no" votes and it was decided to present the ideas to a general meeting of the membership.
We also discussed the idea of making the lobby smaller and adding a second locked door within to create a secure area where visitors would be screened before being let in through the locked door as recommended by the security expert. But unlike the Gan room where people who wanted more "security" saw no downsides to the "safe room" idea (only two of us thought the loss of windows really mattered), people realized that members generally like to hang out and socialize in the lobby area when they don't feel like davening in the sanctuary, and making the space smaller and into a "screening" area would mean losing the space for a preferred use. So that the vote on that design change was more split down the middle of the Design Committee.
Several days later there was a general meeting to show off the plans for the new building to the membership. I was glad that a newer young (30-something) member pointed out that authorizing volunteers to turn away people they deem "suspicious" could mean that they would discriminate against people of color or anyone who doesn't fit their idea of what a Jew "looks like". This is where I realized that this is also an issue for any "Jew by choice" or prospective convert: not only do converts sometimes not fit the stereotypical appearance of Jews by birth, but prospective converts do not know the lingo and will often present themselves as uncertain and nervous. Certainly there have been many discussions on this forum about how prospective converts have to work up their courage to visit a synagogue. This would also be the case for curious Jews by birth who grew up without a religious background, but want to explore their religious heritage. We have a young man like that who has been visiting our congregation on a very regular basis. It warms my heart that he has decided that he likes it enough to have become a semi-regular and he now seems to be much more familiar with the service.
Anyway, although I think that having "greeters" who actually welcome visitors is a nice idea; I think that having "greeters" who are actually "screeners" to keep out "bad guys" is vastly more likely to result in turning away people who are not threats rather than saving the congregation from a potential shooter (in that unlikely case the greeter is simply going to be the first casualty).
At the general meeting about the new building space renovation plans, the vote was 2/3 to 1/3 in favor of a "safe room" (IMHO people are mislead by the very terminology of calling it "safe"), but almost everyone wanted to keep a larger lobby for socializing rather than make it into a smaller "security area". And as for locking the doors during services, nothing has been done yet. I'm glad that there wasn't a rush to "do something" resulting in bad choices for new locks and implementation of a new lock policy. I think that the longer it takes to change the locks, the more people will calm down and be able to think more clearly about the actual risks and the negative aspects of locking doors and "screening" visitors.
Our door is now locked - there's a buzzer and people stationed to let folks in. Also the doors themselves are glass and are surrounded by glass windows - honestly, a lock is mostly symbolic. Would it slow down a shooter? Maybe a little. Maybe a little is all you need. The synagogue is set well back from the street and is on a minor residential road, and it is surrounded by trees and brush - a shooter could easily get in and kill everybody and leave again, and nobody would know it until the dead were missed, I suppose. The sanctuary is being remodeled next year. Maybe some kind of additional security (what, I don't know) could be incorporated into the plans - which at this time consist mostly of opening up the auditorium to the outside, rather than closing anything off.
The Chair created a "Doodle poll" by which members could anonymously vote for whether to lock the front during services and whether to have a "greeter". The results were: 9: Leave as is: open door, no greeter 4: Open door with greeter 9: Locked door, no greeter 18: Locked door with greeter The number of votes represents about 2/3 of the active membership. But with 2/3 voting for locking the door, I guess we'll probably have to go with that even though a significant number voted against doing so. We have already discussed the whole idea of a "greeter" in a couple of Board meetings and most of us feel that it won't actually work, at least in the long term, to staff the door with volunteers because our membership is just too small to support that kind of additional "volunteer position". After all, full members already have to coordinate services and bring in kiddush snacks approximately once a year each (i.e. two Shabbats per year when each individual member has an assigned "duty" which means four Shabbats per year per couple). And furthermore, "greeter" should not simply be added as a rotating assignment because it is not an appropriate job for some people.
Ironically, the most fearful people would not want to be "greeters" since that would put make them the first victim of any violent event (however unlikely) and IMHO would be the worst people for that job because they would be more likely to turn away any number of perfectly innocent visitors who just don't look like what those people expect, i.e. "normal" Ashkenazi Jews by birth. Perhaps it's just that I'm peevish about thinking that the locking of the doors is going to be forced on the minority who voted against it and it going to make my shul a less welcoming place, but I feel like the anxious people who want locked doors with "greeters" actually want to impost "greeter" duty on *other people*, making them give up davening time to guard the door.
If there is a rotating assignment of "greeters", I think that the staffing will work for at most a couple of months and then people are going to skip out on the duty, especially as fears stoked by the Pittsburgh shooting subside. More than 10 years ago, back when there were many more children in the congregation, members were also assigned to "Gan duty" to supervise the older kids while the paid babysitter watched the younger kids. It was not uncommon that the member assigned to that duty would simply not show up. Back when I had young children, that meant that as a parent, I often ended up filling in (and feeling resentful about it until I realized that since I couldn't lead services or read Torah, I could see fill-in Gan duty as my extra contribution). Furthermore, I think there is still disagreement as to what the purpose of the "greeter" is: (a) to really to "greet" visitors, explain the odd layout of our current space (with the closets for coats and the restrooms down winding hallways), and get them a siddur and chumash and tallit (if desired), or (b) to actually screen visitors to try to spot "bad guys" and keep them out. Obviously, I'm in favor of (a) and against (b).
Note that we are not a recognizable synagogue. We meet in a storefront. The only Jewish aspect of the sign in the window with our name is that the star above the cartoon "logo" has a star of David outline (but is not even two triangles for the actual symbol). Even the security experts said that we are a very unlikely target for a violent action. Oh well, maybe fear of being a Jewish target will cause more people to support my suggestion for a new name for our congregation which uses only two English words and thus would not even sound obviously Jewish if you didn't know already. Our current name has SIX words, four Hebrew and one with six syllables ("egalitarian"). I hope that we can change to something shorter by the time we are ready to put our name on the new building that is being renovated.
Current security situation at my shul: Doors locked 24/7 (yes even on Shabbos). Members can use their electronic keys to enter. Visitors must be accompanied by a member and/or cleared by security at the door before entry. I don't like it but majority rules.
Update: I was talking to a Minyan friend at Thanksgiving and he was also against locked doors and "screeners" and was not aware that the situation might be decided at the upcoming Board Meeting. He wrote me an email that was very good at stating the issues--it helps that as a history professor, his persuasive writing skills are excellent. He was not going to be able to attend the meeting and I was not sure if it was a good idea to post his views on the congregational email "bulletin board" so I thought about it for a couple days, but then decided to urge him to post because I thought his views should be heard. The timing turned out to be excellent because the Chair posted the "results" of the Doodle Poll just a couple days before the meeting, so my friend's post seemed more like a reaction to the Chair's post and the Chair might not think that I had been busily gathering supporters of my viewpoint.
Are we just another aging congregation with a bunker mentality, turned inward on ourselves just waiting to die in 15-20 years? ..... The gravity of all this means that we need to be extremely sensitive to the *process* by which we make the decision.
On that issue: just as we do not accept opinion polls to elect our local, state, or national leaders (as much as many of us might wish that such had happened in 2016), we should only accept the Doodle Poll as *advisory*, not determinative of the overall viewpoint of minyan members.
In matters that are foundational to our identity such as this, we have an obligation to create a forum that allows us to discuss and truly be in dialogue with each other, as reflective neighbors and genuinely caring members of community.
There were immediately a few posts in agreement from some of the most involved and respected members, plus even a post in agreement by a member who probably does want locks and as much "security" stuff as possible, but who also cares deeply about having everyone's viewpoints considered. So with that post, the tide turned, and at the meeting the Chair said it was clear that a congregational meeting was desirable and the meeting was set for the first week in January. Interestingly, the meeting will not be all that soon, despite a more hysterical member posting a complaint that the Board was not moving fast enough and theatening to stop attending shul if there are no locks or "greeters". (I'm glad that she was not at the Board Meeting since she would have likely made a fuss and demanded a meeting much sooner even if that would mean that key members of the community would not be able to attend.)
Meanwhile, I've suggested to the Board that we could ask the custodian to simply sit at the *unlocked* front door during services if that would make some members more comfortable. This custodian is paid to not only open the building on Shabbat, turn on light, and make coffee and hot water, but to basically nap in a back room for three hours before cleaning up after kiddush. I think it is not unreasonable to ask him to sit at the door rather than be paid for not doing anything at all for three hours a week.
Anyway, I'm very relieved that this issue will get a thorough hearing before anything is implemented.
Update: we had a congregational meeting about "shul security" last night. I happened to find out at Shabbat services that one of our members who has skillfully mediated discussion for past controversial subjects was not going to attend the meeting. And I fretted that the calmer members would not tend to attend, while the more anxious members would make more of an effort to attend. However, judging by eye, at least 3/4 of the membership attended the meeting and I was glad to see many key members such as most of the members who have served in the past as chairs of the Board.
One of the earliest comments was by the person who is essentially donating huge amounts of time as a professional architect to redesign the new building. She was present along with officers of the congregation at the assessment meeting by two security professionals. Being a proponent of locked doors she got up to say (before the floor was open to general comments by members) that the security professionals had advised us to lock doors. This is not correct, but I had anticipated this distortion of that meeting, so I had even brought along the email exchanges that occurred after the meeting to clarify the security professionals' position on locked doors. I had to interject when the chair immediately picked up from her comments, but I was able to briefly clarify what the security professionals had actually said. They had actually strongly advised us to have "greeters" at the door who would also act as screeners for people who enter. But they clearly described a scenario in which a visitor would enter the *unlocked* front door and be met and "greeted" by a member who would chat with them and if they seem like "normal" visitors, explain that the coat closets and restrooms are in the back of the building and show them where to get a tallit and siddur and chumash, etc. But if the visitor "seems suspicious", the greeter is supposed to tell the visitor that they seem to "have the wrong place", escort them to the door, and ask them to leave. The security people only suggested locking the front door during services if the door was left unattended, such as if the "greeter" decided to join the service.
Anyway, most of the meeting consisted of members who wanted to speak each being given up to 2-3 minutes. Most members spoke about general aspects of the "Minyan" rather than the specifics about locks: about how important the "minyan" was to them and how they hoped that no member would feel they needed to leave based on decisions about security. Because the Chair had commented that "IF something bad were to happen" that we would feel bad about not having had more security, I decided to use my comment time just to remind people that regardless of what we do or don't do, there may be negative or positive consequences so there is not really a "safe" option with no negatives. ANY decision or action could have affects on whether we can attract new members or whether we might lose or upset current members.
Almost everyone who spoke did so respectfully and nicely, except for the one person who had been most panicked and pushy about the shul needing locks---not only was she the only person to go way over time (she was allowed almost 4 minutes before being told that she was out of time), but at least to me her tone sounded accusatory, saying that most of the current membership doesn't have younger children [most have adult children] and don't seem to aware of the current reality and necessity of extra security being needed at any location with children, such as schools, and that the congregation will never attract families with children if we don't "increase security".
After more than two dozen people (i.e. everyone who wanted to) had been given the opportunity to speak, open polling about various options was done. It started with whether people felt "strongly in favor of locking front doors during services" and then "mildly in favor of locking front doors during services". Surprisingly, for each of those two options, less than a half dozen members raised their hands. That suggested pretty clearly that a majority of people did NOT want to lock the front doors. The Chair saw that and wanted to simply move on, but members demanded a full poll, including the options of strongly and mildly *against* locking front doors during services. I do think it was good to see what the opposition votes were since the number of votes against might have been only as many as those in favor, with many people abstaining and remaining neutral. But each of the "against" polls got about 15 votes, so the overall response was at least 3 to 1 against locking doors. Thankfully, the congregation does not govern by consensus since I don't believe the people wanting locked doors could ever be convinced otherwise. The vote was different from the previous online "doodle poll". I believe this in part due to the role of "greeters" being clarified (with most people wanting a "welcoming" role, but NOT a screening security role for "greeters") and also that the vote about locks was done separately from "greeters". Also key, I think, were the thoughtful email posts by the members who pointed out the possible negative aspects of locking doors which I think members had not realized when they cast their votes in the earlier poll.
One new building lock will be installed: a combination lock will be installed on the back door of the building which goes to a small parking lot in the rear of the building off a back alley. The door is at the end of a long hallway so people coming in that way are often not seen by anyone until they make their way to the sanctuary. The combination will be given out to all members, but there will be a keyed lock to over-ride when the building is empty.