In the aftermath of the deadly massacre in a shul in Pittsburgh, more people are engaging in conversations about guns. The talk is not just about the danger of weapons used in the attack, but about exercising our Second Amendment right to bear arms.
Guns and Jews or Jews and guns seem like a societal contradiction. Jews, the stereotype goes, do not shoot, they sue in court. After last week’s events in Pittsburgh, the conversation has shifted. People do not want to feel helpless or defenseless should the occasion arise.
President Trump said it best in the immediate aftermath of the tragic killing of 11 people in the Tree of Life synagogue: had a congregant been armed in the shul, someone that could have returned fire until the police arrived, lives could have been saved. But that was not the case, and it is not a circumstance that will be found in most shuls on a Shabbos or on any morning of the week.
The words, “sitting ducks,” gets bandied about a lot, but that is certainly not the case everywhere. Let’s take some of our local yeshivas here on Long Island, for example. Speaking with security experts Pam and Yehuda Dafna of ISS Security Services, we covered how they see the security situation.
This is a sensitive issue, and we do not want to compromise any institution’s safety, but Yehuda said two things. The first is that he is surprised there is only one yeshiva he knows of in Long Island that has an armed security guard in the building or on campus.
Many of our schools appear to have tight and thorough security, but under severe or extreme circumstances where an attacker has to be stopped, our schools do not have the ability to do so.
The second thing Yehuda Daphna mentions is the number of calls and inquiries his company received in the aftermath of Pittsburgh about hiring at least one well-trained and armed security guard to be at the shul over this last Shabbos. He says that as a noted security professional and as a shul-going member of our community who oversees security at his own shul, he well understands the steps that need to be taken in order to assure the safety of the Jewish community, whether in Plainview or Pittsburgh.
According to Yehuda and Pam, they received quite a number of calls from shul and yeshiva people asking about the possibility of hiring armed security, but after hearing the details and the cost involved, very few called back to set up an armed security person for Shabbos when the shuls are most crowded and when it seems they are most vulnerable.
For Boruch Ber Bender of Achiezer, a man with his pulse on the varied needs of the community, the effort to organize the community in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh tragedy has been taking up his time, literally around the clock, seven days a week.
Rabbi Bender, who has some of the best contacts with local police and government, says numerous steps have been taken to protect our institutions, but there is certainly more that can and should be done.
At a meeting with the Nassau County police commissioner and several elected officials last week, the turnout was extraordinary, with almost every rabbi from the community present. It was a few days after the Shabbos-morning killings in Pittsburgh, and concern was intense. The media, unfortunately — even the chareidi magazines, like Mishpacha and Ami — covered the story as if this was a prelude to an old-fashioned pogrom and the beginning of out-of-control antisemitism in America.
While coverage of that event was imperative — and we covered it here as well with extensive reportage — there was no reason to frighten people in an irresponsible manner. But readers also need to understand that these stories make for great front-page stories, and to that extent the magazines did not disappoint.
All events, whether as painful as this one or not, fade into the past to an extent. And now, almost two weeks since this tragedy occurred, the same thing is happening, though we are still very much pained, concerned, and disturbed about what happened in Pittsburgh.
Now there is some concern about complacency, even though as a people and a community we were stung and shocked by what happened. While the attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue will never be forgotten, focus is shifting to take steps to prevent and defend against a repeat assault, G-d forbid, anywhere in this country and in any type of congregation.
According to Boruch Ber Bender, there is a vast area of options between hiring armed personnel at your shul and taking other measures to protect congregants in an emergency. He says that the best result of what happened in Pittsburgh is that rabbis, shul leaders, and members are asking questions.
“They want to know about the protocol for going into lockdown drills for shul members, and other aspects of securing their facility,” Rabbi Bender says. “There is a constant conversation for now, and it is vital that we take steps before interest dissipates, which is only natural.”
This past week, many community shuls in the Five Towns, Great Neck, Brooklyn, Queens, and elsewhere kept their doors locked. An email from one shul that I saw said that children would not be allowed to play outdoors over this last Shabbos. For now the weather is changing anyway, so it is difficult to say how long that policy would remain in effect if it does not turn very cold in the near future.
The Daphnas of ISS Action and their son, Abe, who personally trains many of their guards, say that security at a shul or yeshiva is not just about hiring a person with a gun to stand outside the building.
“Hiring a guard brings with it matters of proper training and liability issues, not just for the security guard but for the entire board of the shul should there be an incident,” Pam Dafna says.
As Boruch Bender said earlier, there is a great deal that can be done before—or, if necessary, in conjunction with—hiring armed guards to protect worshippers in shuls on Shabbos if not throughout the entire week. He says that while a gun in responsible hands will stop an active shooter, what is really required preliminarily is to identify and stop people who do not belong. This requires that internal security teams be formed that can function alongside the professionally trained security officials.
At the end of the day and all the analysis, there is a historic discomfort when it comes to Jews handling guns. In a week or so we will read in the weekly Torah portion about how our forefather Yaakov prepared to defend himself against a potential assault from his brother Eisav. As we have studied and learned since we were children, Yaakov prepared himself with three things—one of those was arming himself so as to defend himself and his family against any attack.
And then there was the matter of Dovid HaMelech, who, by Divine decree was not allowed to be the one to build the Holy Temple in Jerusalem because he was a man who handled weapons and engaged in war.
In more modern times, there was the anomaly of the Warsaw Ghetto, where Jews fought the Nazis to the death. In Israel there was the Irgun and other groups that fought the British occupiers of the Holy Land until they withdrew, and facilitated the creation of the modern state of Israel.
And more recently, back in the 1970s, Rabbi Meir Kahane, creator of the Jewish Defense League (JDL)—which, though it does not exist is still internationally feared—stood on a Brooklyn street corner in response to people being assaulted and mugged in Jewish neighborhoods, using the slogan that still rings in our ears: “Every Jew, a .22.”
So taking up arms may not be the complete answer to current issues confronting the Jewish community, but it is one of the answers and should not be brushed aside or simply dismissed. The issue requires clear thinking and communities working together. In the aftermath of the tragic bloodbath in Pittsburgh, let’s hope we will be ready if anything like that is attempted again.