Writings: Synagogue Security and the Holiday of Purim

Writings Writings and Lectures

We recently celebrated the Jewish holiday of Purim, and it got me thinking again about synagogues, security, and the kinds of threats that we tend to worry about. 

Let me explain.

The story of Purim comes from the book Esther in the bible. It commemorates a horrible war in which the Jews were able to defend themselves against a decree by Haman that called for their annihilation.

While I listened to the Megillah at my synagogue I was struck that the ancient story captures a recurring experience of baseless hatred that can only be fought by force. The moral of the story seems to be that In the face of aggression and war one must be ready to lobby and fight back.  

Just two months ago, on a Saturday night, we all held our breath when a terrorist had entered a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, and took the rabbi and three other members hostage. I stayed up late that night, compulsively refreshing my news feeds until I heard that the hostages escaped unharmed. Only then, was I able to turn off my phone and go to sleep.  

In the aftermath of this event, questions about the security of Jewish institutions resurfaced. This event, like the shooting in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and in the Jersey City supermarket, does not only haunt us but demands our attention and action. 

How can we secure our places of worship? How do we keep our doors open and our institutions welcoming while ensuring that bad guys cannot harm us? How do we respond to unprovoked violence?

I have been thinking about these questions for many years as a synagogue member and as an architect. My firm, Studio ST Architects, specializes among other things in the design and renovation of synagogues as well as Jewish schools, and community centers. With each of these clients, we are forced to engage in questions about how to secure these buildings.

With these clients and their security consultants, we try to assess the risks, analyze the building’s vulnerabilities, and create a budget for upgrading necessary systems. Some security enhancements are fairly simple like changing the locks or adding surveillance cameras. Other recommendations require changing the congregation’s behavior, rather than the physical space, like making sure the exterior doors are closed. But sometimes we cannot avoid large expenses that involve sophisticated hardware and emergency lock-down systems. 

Together with our clients, we try to balance the need to feel safe while keeping the buildings open and welcoming, taking into consideration the financial investment that a community can afford. 

But we must not let the understandable wish to increase security overshadow other tasks that we are committed to.   

Communities always need to make hard choices and prioritize among competing values.  Many synagogues are deeply committed to making their old buildings more accessible. Others strive to reduce their energy consumption and waste. Some communities support a homeless shelter or soup kitchen in their neighborhood or need to hire a new staff person to better serve their own members. How we allocate our resources is an expression of our values and identity. 

Risks are often assessed emotionally, and when we feel attacked, we are triggered to react. This was probably a useful evolutionary instinct, but it can lead us to pay more attention and use more resources, to protect ourselves from attacks, like the one in Colleyville, that is exceedingly rare. 

Since resources are always limited, we need to recognize that when we choose to allocate funds to secure our buildings they come at the expense of other programs we value. 

There is also a psychological aspect to our assessment of aggression and violence. It is easy to unite to fight what we see as an outside threat, but it is much harder to see the problems that are hidden within ourselves and our communities. 

Think about this – what happens when we shift the question we ask, Instead of asking “how do we protect our institutional building from terrorists?” we ask “how can we save lives within our community?”

This question will lead us to very different answers. We will find that the pressing issues that demand our attention are within our own homes, neighborhoods, and communities. In order to save lives, we need to address problems such as suicide, abuse, loneliness, poverty, and addiction – all of which claim so many more lives than hate crimes. 

In the US, 46,000 people died of suicide in 2020, and over a million people attempted suicide that year. Yet, we rarely come together for a community-wide, interdenominational, vigil or call for governmental funding to combat suicide and similar challenges within our own congregations. 

We need to secure our buildings and ensure they are not easy targets, and this important investment no doubt helps reduce the likelihood of attacks on our synagogue. However, this should not take precedence over our core values to welcome the stranger and care for our own. While adding expensive layers of security may at times be necessary, we should remember that taking care of the vulnerable and lonely among us is no less important. Statistically, we will save more lives by focusing on the problems within our own communities. 

If you recall the end of the Megillah, this is exactly the message of Esther. In response to the war, Esther did not urge the Jewish people to train for potential future combat. Rather, she created a celebration that is focused on acts of love and kindness.  On Purim, she called upon us to look inwards, at our own community, and celebrate by giving charity to the needy (Matanot Laevyonim) and food to friends and family (Mishloach Manot).

I’m inspired by Queen Esther’s commitment to add kindness as a way to commemorate the salvation from violence and to challenge all future generations to address the needs that are hidden within our own community. While violent attacks trigger us to focus on the dangers that threaten us from the outside, let’s remember that we can reduce pain and save lives by addressing the uncomfortable problems within our own families and communities.  

By: Esther Sperber March 28, 2022

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