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After the shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA, and more recently at Chabad of Ponway near San Diego, CA, American Jews are grappling with the need to keep our communities safe while remaining open and welcoming to seekers of all backgrounds.
As Jewish leaders whose hearts break whenever a tragedy strikes our community, we are acutely aware of the fear and anxiety with which our people live. One of us, as a Jew of Color, is also aware that what strikes terror and apprehension in fellow brethren of color is often missed, or sometimes ignored by the Jewish community writ large.
The tragedies People of Color face are not seen as “Jewish” tragedies. In most cases, those of us with intersecting Jewish identities face color-specific traumas alone.
In addition to being a Jew of Color, one of us is a veteran with combat experience who has tremendous respect and love for all of our first responders. However, as a Black man, I’ve been pulled over without cause by police officers more times that I can count. My initial reaction to seeing police guarding sacred places is always a source of anxiety and sometimes even of fear.
When meeting the need for security, therefore, the Jewish community must act with both vigilance and an empathetic eye toward those who wish to belong but are made to feel like a ger (stranger). I can attest to having been questioned and monitored in Jewish sacred spaces in ways that ensured I’d never return.
Here are nine things to consider so that our sacred places both protect and welcome all who wish to enter.
Like every decision a congregation makes, its security plans should be consistent with its mission. In our mission statements, we often commit to maintaining “open and welcoming” communities. Many North American congregations advertise how friendly and warm they are. However, Jews from a variety of backgrounds don’t always feel this warmth, especially at times of heightened security. This disconnect is what many refer to as “intent versus impact.” The intent is to make everyone feel secure, but the impact on individuals can be very different.
To better align intent with impact, it is important to be aware of the diverse identities of the people who are in our communities today, including vendors and maintenance and support staff. In some communities, People of Color, for example, constitute at least 20 percent of the American Jewish community.
While working with people whose identities our Ashkenazi-centric communities have not primarily or previously served, we must be mindful of our unconscious bias. According to the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, “unconscious bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.” It is crucial, therefore, to consider our own biases and understanding of differences before an emergency or security situation arises.
Implementing security measures from a place of fear (e.g., immediately after a tragedy), may give us tunnel vision. We need to plan our security ahead, just like our programs, always keeping at heart our mission to be open, inclusive, and welcoming communities. It’s also important to be specific about the kinds of crises for which you are preparing.
Consider security measures that convey a sense of peace, justice, and safety for all who enter. While some people are often comforted by the presence of armed guards and police, others, with a different historic relationship to them may feel threatened.
When developing a security plan, keep in mind practices that may have worked well in the past, but that no longer work, given the changing demographics of the Jewish community.
Create diverse working groups in the security planning process. There is a saying, “Nothing about us without us,” meaning we must engage all the different types of people we aim to protect.
Build a relationship with law enforcement. Get to know your security team and let them get to know your congregants, those who will be in the building and who you hope will be in the building (Jews of Color, working class individuals and families, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, individuals with blue hair, body piercings, etc.), as well as vendors and maintenance and building staff. And make sure your security team has had anti-bias training.
There are a variety of community security practices being used today. Take time to research the security practices being used locally in your community and to ask questions of your neighbors, including local religious and non-religious communities. Like your congregation, they have a vested interest in community safety, and, therefore, it makes good sense to share ideas and strategies.
This blog post is based on a webinar, “Creating a Mission-Driven Security Plan,” the authors presented to synagogue leaders. View the webinar.
Bryant Heinzelman is a 2018 JewV’Nation Fellow and leader at Congregation Har HaShem in Boulder, CO. Rachel Hall is the program manager on the Audacious Hospitality team at the Union for Reform Judaism.