July 15, 2019

Area synagogues weigh benefits, pitfalls of High Holidays security

Rabbi David Eliezrie has peyos, a beard and wears a black hat and a long black coat. “I look pretty Jewish,” quips Eliezrie, senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Meir HaCohen/North County Chabad Center in Yorba Linda.

If an anti-Semite were intent on lashing out at Jews, Eliezrie and his congregation might make a tempting target this holiday season. Yet, the Chabad rabbi said he has no plans to hire a security guard for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. He believes money is better spent on student scholarships for Jewish day school than for installing security cameras and renting armed guards.


“I’m fearful of God,” Eliezrie said. “On the High Holidays, we’re supposed to have an awe of heaven rather than a fear of other human beings.”

Eliezrie’s attitude toward security expenditures is very much the minority, however. Throughout Southern California, congregations will spend untold thousands on armed guards, private patrols and high-tech security cameras to protect from real or imagined threats, ranging from the possibility of suicide bombers to a lone anti-Semitic gunman.

Recent worldwide events have heightened the concern this year. A spike in anti-Semitic acts has unfolded in the aftermath of Israel’s war in Lebanon, resulting in an increase in vandalism and some violence — most notably in the United States when six women were shot, one of them killed, at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle by a Muslim American gunman. The result has been a boom in security spending, experts said.

On Sept. 6, representatives of 70 local synagogues and Jewish organizations attended a daylong conference on advanced security training, sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), that featured talks by counter-terrorism experts from the FBI and Los Angeles Police Department.

“The threats are real and come from both sides of the hate spectrum,” Joanna Mendelson, director of special projects and an investigative researcher for the ADL’s local chapter, said in an interview at the security event. “They come from more traditional enemies or predators of Jews, such as neo-Nazis or white supremacists. And, now, we’re seeing an increase in anti-Semitic rhetoric as well as, in some instances attacks against the Jewish community by radical Muslim groups.”

Chris Hanley of Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock noted that a vandal recently scrawled a swastika on temple property. He is a member of his synagogue’s security committee, and said the congregation will hire an armed guard during the High Holidays.

“If somebody does bring a weapon like a gun or a knife, you need somebody who can respond in kind,” Hanley said.

Sinai Temple in Westwood spent $400,000 on security in the 12 months ending on June 30, with a $50,000 increase earmarked for 2006-2007, according to Sinai Executive Director Howard Lesner. In the years since Sept. 11, 2001, Sinai has erected a concrete barrier around the temple’s perimeter, closed two garage entrances and limited pedestrian access into the building to one location, among other measures.

Still, Lesner worries that there’s only so much he can do to protect the thousands of people who come to High Holiday services.

“I can’t protect people crossing the street on the way to temple from angry, unstable people driving cars into crowds,” he said.

Those and other fears have translated into an increased appetite for security services. To help meet the growing demand, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles expects to award up to 150 High Holiday security grants worth $1,000 each to smaller area temples, Federation spokeswoman Deborah Dragon said.

Executives at North Hollywood-based Centurion Group, a security company that serves many congregations, said spending on armed guards, security cameras, consulting and other security services by its Jewish institutional clients, including 30 temples, will match the level immediately following the Sept. 11 attacks for the first time in two years.

“Anti-Semitism is very real, and threats against Jewish organizations are very real,” said David Rosenberg, owner of Centurion, which employs 400, including many former law enforcement officers.

Is it possible, though, that synagogue posting armed guards outside entrances — some even making congregants pass through metal detectors — and asking members to open purses and briefcases for inspection might be a bit of overkill? Yes, said Shawn Landres, director of research at Synagogue 3000, a nonprofit institute focused on reenergizing synagogue life in North America.

While he recognizes the importance of security, Landres believes that turning a synagogue into a “fortress can turn off somebody finding his or her way into Jewish life.”

Eliezrie, the Orange County Chabad rabbi agrees. Too much security, he said, could send the message that synagogues are dangerous, scary places.

Still, even Eliezrie said he takes his responsibility of protecting worshippers’ lives quite seriously. He and his congregation’s ushers survey the sanctuary for unattended packages and suspicious-looking visitors. At Eliezrie’s request, local police increase their patrols during the High Holidays.

Two years ago, when a disheveled looking woman dropped by Beth Meir HaCohen just before the start of Rosh Hashanah services and left behind a knapsack, Eliezrie called 911, despite the holiness of the day. Just as the police began inspecting the backpack, the woman returned to reclaim her property and left.

“I’m trying to strike a balance between responsibility and overreaction,” Eliezre said. “I want to make a synagogue welcoming to every Jew.”