By: Kat DeSantis ’22, a Political Science and Philosophy major.
The following was created for the Roy Ans Research Fellowship on the Study of Jewish Life and Thought at Washington College.
Brief description: “Mitigating Risk While Maintaining Community: An Examination of the Effect of the Rise in Antisemitism on the American Reform Jewish Community” examines how the increase in anti-Semitic trope and violence across the United States has affected the Jewish community’s ability to uphold certain communal values. Drawing on case studies from three Reform synagogues, this paper sheds light on the impact that expanded security measures can have on a congregation’s efforts to create a welcoming and inclusive space for all.
Throughout their cultural history, the Jewish people have shifted how they behave, act, and practice Judaism. Much of Jewish ritual and modern practice has been shaped by typical societal evolution, but certain aspects of the American Jewish experience have been shaped by pressure and fear related to Antisemitism. Most recently, Jews have had to reimagine their traditional religious and cultural practice, in many cases having to wonder whether there are risks associated with these actions and how to mitigate these risks. What are the potential dangers at this gathering, celebration, holiday, or activity of daily life? What are the implications of my risk assessment and my ability to fully embody my Jewish values? These questions are frequently asked as Jewish Americans adjust their lifestyles in response to the increase in hate speech and violent crimes against their community. Yet, with all of this being said, Jews have never lost vision on their strong principles and values that guide these challenging decisions. Although the rise in Antisemitism in the United States has led to an increase of safety and security measures in Jewish spaces, the greater question remains: how do Jews uphold their community values in the wake of this vulnerability?
Answering this question is essential to understanding the methodology of Jewish practice in relation to the conceptualization of collective identity. Jewish tradition outlines several specific habits and actions related to maintaining community. One pertinent commandment in the Torah states, “you shall not oppress the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” which appears 36 times in the Torah.1 This commandment points to the importance of welcoming the stranger and cultivating an inviting space for all people to find community. With this value in mind, the leaders of synagogues must consider how their increased security measures affect their ability to create a truly welcoming space. This paper will evaluate the security choices that Reform Jewish synagogues have made in response to the rise in Antisemitism in the United States and how those additions have impacted their ability to uphold communal values.
This paper will first define Antisemitism and explain its history in the United States. Next, there will be three case studies of various-sized reform synagogues: the first being a large, urban located synagogue, the second being a small, urban located synagogue, and the third being a small, rural located synagogue. These case studies will showcase specific security measures that the synagogue has adopted in light of the increase in Antisemitism, and further shed light on the congregational attitudes of these updates. After understanding the safety and security changes in the synagogues, this paper will explore the impact these have on communal Jewish values. The last section of this paper will detail the criticism of the increased security measures, concluding with a discussion of future areas for research and idea development.
History and Definition of Antisemitism
The definition of Antisemitism as stated by the U.S. Department of State is the following: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of Antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”2
Antisemitism can be traced back to biblical times as seen with the enslavement of Jews in Egypt, the Romans and their destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and the Seleucids proselytizing Jews during the breakup of the Greek Empire.3 The Crusades and the Middle Ages also marked significant religious persecution and conflict towards Jews around the time of 100 AD due to conflict over territorial ownership of Jerusalem and protection of Christianity against other religious “threats.”4 In the 19th and 20th centuries, Antisemitism was especially rampant in the form of racial, political, and economic hatred. In the United States, restrictions were placed on the number of Jews granted access to immigration, barriers to finding employment, and universities often set quotas that limited the number of Jews allowed to enroll.5 Stereotypical tropes often painted Jews as detestable elitists, referring “to money, to power, to the alleged use by Jews of their intelligence for nefarious, malicious causes, and a purported ability of Jews to disguise their influence and to control events from ‘behind the scenes,’ in a manner akin to the devil.”6 Discrimination against Jews peaks with the Holocaust,7 which was the ideological and systematic state-sponsored extermination of six million Jews by Nazis during World War II (1941-1945).8 As the United States shifts into the 1960s, there is a decline in Antisemitism that coincides with the Civil Rights Movement and remains infrequent through the early 2000s.9
In the last decade there has been a surge of Antisemitic acts and rhetoric occurring in the United States. The most recognizable beginning of this surge was in August 2017 at the “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville, Virginia. Protesters chanted phrases like “Jews will not replace us,” in reference to the “replacement theory”, a conspiracy minded view that proclaims Jews are secretly committing genocide against white Christians.10 The rally turned violent when a white supremacist drove his vehicle into the crowd of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others.11
Less than a year later, on October 27, 2018, a shooter entered the Tree of Life or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, murdering 11 Jews and wounding six, making this the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the United States to date.12 The perpetrator of the attack was motivated by an ongoing narrative on social media that blames Jews and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) with facilitating and inspiring “non-white immigration.”13
Six months later, on April 27, 2019, four individuals were injured in a Poway, California synagogue when a shooter, motivated by other Antisemitic attacks including the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, opened fire on a Passover celebration.14 In 2019 alone, there were 428 hate crimes in New York City, with more than half targeting heavily Orthodox neighborhoods. Street violence became common as Jews who wear religious clothing like yarmulkes, black suits and hats, or hair coverings in their daily lives were attacked, often by young African American men due to the tensions over gentrification of certain areas.15 Further, three people were killed in a Kosher supermarket in Jersey City, New Jersey on December 11, 2019 by a couple fueled by Antisemitic beliefs, and five people were killed in a knife attack at a rabbi’s home in Monsey, New York on December 28, 2019, the seventh night of Hanukkah.16
These acts of violence mentioned are some of the most visible Antisemitic instances, but there are many more counts of physical and verbal assault, Antisemitic propaganda and material postings, and the insight of fear far beyond what is reported on in the media. This is known due to victim and eyewitness accounts that are shared between community members and on social media platforms, which are shedding light on the vast scope of this issue. With all these instances occurring in quick succession of one another the rise in Antisemitism is undeniable.
To better understand the toll of acts of Antisemitism directed toward the American Jewish community, the following case studies highlight the mitigation techniques Reform synagogues have implemented to keep their members and the community safe.
Temple Micah, located in Northwest Washington D.C., is a Reform congregation with over 600 member families. A section of Temple Micah’s vision statement expresses that they aim to create a “welcoming Jewish home where you can bring your whole self and be your best self,”17 which speaks to its commitment to cultivating a sense of inclusivity. In light of the recent increase in Antisemitism, the leaders of Temple Micah have had to evaluate how they uphold this value while also managing the safety and security of its community. Board Member, Rielle Miller Gabriel, expressed that the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting sparked concern among congregants, and gave way to additional safety assessments of Temple Mich’s building and procedures.18 From her perspective, the largest security concern the synagogue faces is its proximity to the National Cathedral, marking the location as high profile for potential acts of violence due to the quantity of foot traffic in the area and number of religious worship buildings. With the threats in mind, Temple Micah leaders have conducted multiple safety evaluations of the building, leading to the enactment of increased surveillance of the area, police officer presence during holidays and events, cybersecurity measures, and specifically the addition of armed security personnel to the staff. Previously there was one security guard, but the number has increased to two, and they are always on duty during events where members are in the building.
Further, Miller Gabriel states that the congregants have responded in an overwhelmingly positive way to the security measures.19 The security guards have become part of the community and members do not feel that their presence hinders the ability to create a welcoming space. Additionally, the synagogue tries to use state and federal grants to cover the cost of said security measures so that congregants do not have to pay more on dues. The congregation prides itself on being a friendly, inclusive community, so the leaders of Temple Micah take this value very seriously when debating safety and security measures.
Congregation Shaarai Shomayim
Congregation Shaarai Shomayim is a small synagogue located in downtown Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Shaarai Shomayim is also a Reform synagogue, with around 350 families. Their mission statement includes a sentiment towards creating a welcoming community, reiterating its importance: “At Congregation Shaarai Shomayim we learn, we worship, we pursue justice, and we experience Jewish Life in a welcoming family environment.”20 Two years ago a congregant named Rick Lynch stepped up to offer his expertise on safety and security measures in response to the rise in Antisemitism. Lynch’s 23 years of service to the United States army and 25 years as a California police officer and Deputy Director for Gang Activity gave him the perfect credentials to assist the synagogue with safety measures. Lynch explained that the biggest security concern is the safety of congregants as they enter and exit the synagogue, especially at night, due to the potential for assaults, robberies, or an Antisemitic-fueled attack.21 With those concerns in mind, Lynch created the “Shomrim Team,” which means “guardian” in Hebrew, and conducted a risk assessment of the building. The audit led to an update of surveillance equipment, and the creation of an evacuation plan, simple medical training to religious schoolteachers, the hiring of an armed security guard, and network security protections. The Shorim Team is also regularly trained through Federal Emergency Management Association programs. Lastly, Lynch has worked closely with the community, including the Lancaster County Police Chief, the Lancaster County Fire Chief, and the Lancaster County SWAT team to increase communication and make them aware of the potential threats so that all responders are better prepared.
Congregants have responded well to Lynch’s initiatives, and many feel more aware and comfortable knowing that there are security measures in place to protect them. The congregants have formed an especially friendly relationship with the security guard who knows members by name, opens the front door for them, and dresses casually so that he does not raise alarm or anxiety with the donning of an outer-wear bullet proof vest. This was not always the case. At the start, there were two security guards who worked in uniform with their weapons visible, making congregants feel on edge. The congregation’s leaders did not want to compromise while maintaining a welcoming community, so they reduced armed personnel to one guard, and members and clergy are more adamant about greeting one another and remaining inclusive of new and returning individuals. The congregants are asked to pay an additional safety fee, but it is low-cost and is widely accepted by the members.
Temple B’Nai Israel
Temple B’Nai Israel, located in Easton, Maryland, has a membership of around 200 families. In pattern with the other Reform synagogues’ mission statements, Temple B’Nai Israel’s states: “Temple B’nai Israel is the center of a warm, inclusive and progressive Jewish community. Located on the Maryland mid-shore, our membership reflects and welcomes into the Temple family the rich diversity in contemporary America.”22 Due to its more isolated location, the biggest security concern is the potential for an unexpected, Antisemitic attack. There are various security measures such as a security code for the front entrance doors and police officer presence during services or events, but otherwise the synagogue has not felt the need to produce additional precautions.
Executive Board Member, Lesley Israel, explains that the congregants have a positive attitude towards safety and security.23 She described how some congregants feel relieved to have increased measures, whereas some already felt so comfortable they did not even find the additional security measures to be fully necessary. Israel goes on to explain how congregants still feel connected with one another and do not let the potential for danger stop them from bonding and congregating as a community.24 Further, the congregation is thankful for their relationship with other Easton organizations; for example, the Police Chief sends officers to monitor the area and stand guard during high holiday celebrations and services at no additional cost to the synagogue. The strength of the Easton interfaith community has also been reassuring to the Temple B’Nai Israel congregants because they feel comfortable with members of all the religious congregations in the area. Due to their emphasis on community building across religions and backgrounds, the Easton Jewish community feels safe and accepted by the residing population.
The impact of increased security measures
Although Jews have held strong to their communal values, Antisemitism has had a negative impact on the individual attitude towards safety and Jewish practice. According to Rabbi Jack Paskoff, “Jews are feeling vulnerable in a way they have not since World War II.”25 This speaks to the fact that there is a newfound fear amongst Jewish Americans due to the Antisemitic attacks and incidents that have occurred all over the country at various, unexpected times. There are different responses from members of the Jewish community: some react with pride and solidarity, while others prefer to keep their practice private and stay under the radar. Some have responded by reconnecting with their local synagogues or attending rallies or community gatherings. These differing responses to the surge in Antisemitism has impacted Jewish identity in dramatic ways. Jews now consider themselves a vulnerable population, once more forcing them to adjust habits and adopt a new mentality. Jewish Americans must stay vigilant and aware at all times.26
Rielle Miller Gabriel from Temple Micah encourages Jews to continue challenging themselves. She points to questions that are still being discussed such as, “Who gets to define Judaism? Who gets to be involved with Judaism? Who are we shutting out from our communities and who are we inviting in?”27 These questions might not have universal answers, but they are important to discuss in each synagogue, Jewish community center, and Jewish school that are made up of individuals grappling with this new reality. This proves that Jews are not only feeling more vulnerable and are taking more safety precautions, but they are also in constant evaluation of how these actions balance with the maintenance of upholding their communal methods, values and goals. On a positive note, Rabbi Jack Paskoff explains that throughout all this conflict and uncertainty, Jewish people are not ceasing their gatherings or falling in defeat to Antisemitism; they are bonding together to combat hate and stand strong as united communities. 28
Criticism of Increased Security Measures
Each synagogue mentioned the occasional opinion that security measures obstruct members from freely entering their house of worship. With locked doors and sometimes intimidating security personnel, some congregants feel as though the measures are excessive and detract from accessibility of the synagogue. This feeling is amplified at certain synagogues outside of this study that have enacted even greater security measures such as the use of metal detectors at entrances, the checking of bags, bodies, and cars by numerous security personnel, the escorting of guests around the building, and the addition of fences and barriers around the exterior of the synagogue.29 These measures are seen in mostly high-profile areas such as large cities or frequently threatened communities. There is also tension when congregants are asked not to bring their own weapons into the synagogue, even if they are licensed to carry or have experience with military or law enforcement careers.
All these objections and others point to the main issue which is the impact security measures have on being welcoming. If a synagogue looks more like a fortress than a house of worship, newcomers might not be as likely to venture inside. If security personnel are constantly questioning or escorting individuals, members may feel disrespected, and guests may feel unwelcome. Security measures of any kind can have a negative impact on community relationships if they are not executed well with Jewish values clearly in mind. The executive boards of each synagogue use their own discretion and best judgement on which security measures are most beneficial to their specific community, and it is up to them to decide how best to handle objections or pushback.
Antisemitism has impactful effects on the United States’ Jewish community. Synagogues are considering security measures in 2020 that they might never have considered decades earlier. It has been 75 years since the Holocaust, yet some Jewish Americans are feeling as vulnerable now as they might have felt then. In the wake of so many Antisemitic attacks and incidents, they have had to reconsider their priorities and balance of practice with upholding values. Synagogues especially have taken an abundance of caution pertaining to safety and security measures, and these are meant to be long-lasting as the face of American Jewry has changed. Although Jewish attitudes might shift with the response to growing Antisemitism, there is a resounding sense of pride that remains in Jewish communities. After 4,000 years of existence, with many of those years being fraught with Antisemitism, Jewish individuals do not intend on backing down nor giving up on their communal values.
As Jewish communities continue to combat Antisemitism, it is imperative that governments and citizens aid in the fight. Government action in the form of law creation, enforcement, and judicial processes are needed to bring perpetrators of Antisemitic crimes to justice.30 Governments have also been helpful and need to continue offering aid in the form of grants given to religious denominations that can be used towards increasing their security measures. There further needs to be an emphasis on universal education in schools that brings attention to Antisemitism and other forms of hate so that young people understand the value in acceptance of one another and the celebration of differences. These measures and more are critical to supporting Jews and other minority groups that have been promised equality and justice under United States’ law. As the fight continues, Jewish Americans will continue their observance and continue cultivating their kehilah kedoshas, or holy communities.
Anti-Defamation League. “ADL H.E.A.T. Map.” Accessed April 24, 2020. https://www.adl.org/education-and-resources/resource-knowledge-base/adl-heat-map.
“Antisemitism.” World Jewish Congress. Accessed April 28, 2020. https://www.worldjewishcongress.org/en/issues/combating-anti-semitism.
Dinnerstein, Leonard. Antisemitism in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. http://search.ebscohost.com.washcoll.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&A N=143586&site=eds-live.
Editors, History com. “The Holocaust.” HISTORY. Accessed April 24, 2020. https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/the-holocaust.
“Every Synagogue, Every JCC Needs Guards.” Israel Faxx. 20 June 2019. Business Insights: Essentials. Web. 22 April 2020. http://bi.gale.com/essentials/article/GALE|A589723907/f22ae018b72dba128ec53f89e654 b675?u=nysl_me_fordham
Graubart, Philip.“Seriously — What’s With All the High Security Synagogues?” Accessed April 28, 2020.
“History & Overview of the Maccabees.” Accessed May 15, 2020. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/history-and-overview-of-the-maccabees.
“HOME.” Temple Micah. Accessed April 28, 2020. https://templemicah.org/. Israel, Lesly. “Interview with Lesly Israel.” Kat DeSantis, April 17, 2020.
Keneally, Meghan. “What to Know about the Violent Charlottesville Protests and Anniversary
Rallies.” ABC News. Accessed April 28, 2020.
Miller Gabriel, Rielle.“Interview with Rielle Miller Gabriel.” Kat DeSantis, April 27, 2020. “Mission Statement.” Temple B’Nai Israel. Accessed April 28, 2020.
“OUR MISSION STATEMENT.” Shaari Shomayim. Accessed April 28, 2020. https://www.shaarai.org/our-congregational-mission.
Paskoff, Rabbi Jack.“Interview with Rabbi Jack Paskoff.” Kat DeSantis, April 22, 2020. ReformJudaism.org. “What We Need to Know About Welcoming the Stranger,” November 17, 2016.
Shaheed, Ahmed . “Antisemitism in the United States.” New York City : Report of an Expert Consultation Organized by AJC’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights in Cooperation with UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, April 11, 2019.
Stack, Liam. “‘Most Visible Jews’ Fear Being Targets as Anti-Semitism Rises.” The New York Times, February 17, 2020, sec. New York. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/17/nyregion/hasidic-jewish-attacks.html.
Tobias, Adam Z., Ronald N. Roth, Leonard S. Weiss, Keith Murray, and Donald M. Yealy. “Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting in Pittsburgh: Preparedness, Prehospital Care, and Lessons Learned.” Western Journal of Emergency Medicine: Integrating Emergency Care with Population Health 21 (2020): 374–81. doi:10.5811/westjem.2019.11.42809.
United States Department of State. “Defining Anti-Semitism.” Accessed April 27, 2020. https://www.state.gov/defining-anti-semitism/.
“US Synagogue Hit by Deadly Shooting.” BBC News, April 28, 2019, sec. US & Canada. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-48081535.
1 ReformJudaism.org, “What We Need to Know About Welcoming the Stranger,” November 17, 2016. https://reformjudaism.org/blog/2016/11/17/what-we-need-know-about-welcoming-stranger.
2 United States Department of State, “Defining Anti-Semitism,” Accessed April 27, 2020. https://www.state.gov/defining-anti-semitism/.
3 “History & Overview of the Maccabees,” Accessed May 15, 2020. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/history-and-overview-of-the-maccabees.
4 Ahmed Shaheed, “Antisemitism in the United States,” New York City: Report of an Expert Consultation Organized by AJC’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights in Cooperation with UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, April 11, 2019. https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Religion/Submissions/JBI_2.pdf.
8 History.com Editors, “The Holocaust,” HISTORY, Accessed April 24, 2020. https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/the-holocaust.
9 Ahmed Shaheed, “Antisemitism in the United States,” New York City: Report of an Expert Consultation Organized by AJC’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights in Cooperation with UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, April 11, 2019. https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Religion/Submissions/JBI_2.pdf.
11 Meghan Keneally, “What to Know about the Violent Charlottesville Protests and Anniversary Rallies,” ABC News. Accessed April 28, 2020. https://abcnews.go.com/US/happen-charlottesville-protest-anniversary-weekend/story?id=57107 500.
12 Ahmed Shaheed, “Antisemitism in the United States,” New York City: Report of an Expert Consultation Organized by AJC’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights in Cooperation with UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, April 11, 2019. https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Religion/Submissions/JBI_2.pdf.
13 Ahmed Shaheed, “Antisemitism in the United States,” New York City: Report of an Expert Consultation Organized by AJC’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights in Cooperation with UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, April 11, 2019. https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Religion/Submissions/JBI_2.pdf.
14 “US Synagogue Hit by Deadly Shooting,” BBC News, April 28, 2019, sec. US & Canada. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-48081535.
15 Liam Stack, “‘Most Visible Jews’ Fear Being Targets as Anti-Semitism Rises,” The New York Times, February 17, 2020, sec. New York. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/17/nyregion/hasidic-jewish-attacks.html.
17 “Our Micah,” Temple Micah, Accessed April 28, 2020. https://templemicah.org/.
18 Rielle Miller Gabriel, “Interview with Rielle Miller Gabriel,” Kat DeSantis, April 27, 2020.
19 Rielle Miller Gabriel, “Interview with Rielle Miller Gabriel,” Kat DeSantis, April 27, 2020.
20 Shaarai. “OUR MISSION STATEMENT.” Accessed April 28, 2020. https://www.shaarai.org/our-congregational-mission.
21 Rick Lynch, “Interview with Rick Lynch,” Kat DeSantis, April 13, 2020.
22 “Mission Statement,” Accessed April 28, 2020. https://bnaiisraeleaston.org/mission-statement/.
23 Lesly Israel, “Interview with Lesly Israel,” Kat DeSantis, April 17, 2020.
25 Rabbi Jack Paskoff, “Interview with Rabbi Jack Paskoff,” Kat DeSantis, April 22, 2020.
27 Rielle Miller Gabriel, “Interview with Rielle Miller Gabriel,” Kat DeSantis, April 27, 2020.
28 Rabbi Jack Paskoff, “Interview with Rabbi Jack Paskoff,” Kat DeSantis, April 22, 2020.
29 Philip Graubart, “Seriously — What’s With All the High Security Synagogues?” Accessed April 28, 2020. https://forward.com/scribe/357380/seriously-whats-with-all-the-high-security-synagogues/.
30 World Jewish Congress, “Antisemitism,” World Jewish Congress, Accessed April 28, 2020. https://www.worldjewishcongress.org/en/issues/combating-anti-semitism.
Kat DeSantis is a junior Political Science and Philosophy double major on a pre-law track. She is currently the President of the Student Government Association, as well as a sister of Alpha Omicron Pi, a member of the Douglass Cater Society of Junior Fellows, and a member of Hillel. Additionally, she is the High School Program Leader at Horizons of Kent and Queen Anne’s, which is a non-profit organization dedicated to enriching the lives of underserved young people on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. In her free time, you can find Kat reading Colleen Hoover books, running around Wilmer Park, or assembling cheese boards.