March 31, 2020

A Different Kind of Arms Race for Our Community

There’s a man who sits near me at minyan who davens with his phone on the table in front of him. The screen stays on, split into four camera angles of the street outside, and he keeps an eye on it.

Sometimes, after I finish the amidah, my eyes wander over to the live feed. People shuffle by, heads buried in their devices and I imagine who they might be or where they might be going. Perhaps they’re hustling to a later service or heading home from a faster one. I don’t think anyone with evil intentions will appear. But the thought does enter my mind. Here to make time with The Great Surveillance Camera In The Sky, instead I catch myself looking over my shoulder. 

It seems like only yesterday that we were living and praying in a bubble of sweet naiveté. Times have changed. White supremacy is in bloom and is drawing oxygen from a toxic national discourse and a vacuum of moral leadership. The last year saw two of our holy spaces come under violent attack. Tree of Life is now the name of a massacre.

It has been 20 years and a few weeks since a man carrying an automatic rifle walked into the North Valley Jewish Community Center and opened fire, striking five people before fleeing. The gunman, bent on killing Jews, cased three other institutions first but found them well secured. He settled on the first soft target he could find. 

The attack has informed security policy at Los Angeles Jewish institutions ever since. The logic: Fortify yourself as well as, if not better than, your neighbor. What else explains the arms race now quietly unfolding between synagogues in my neighborhood? My shul installed security cameras only once the shul up the street had them. When one shul arms its guard, or adds a second, the others follow suit. The newest big shul on Pico Boulevard, with 8-foot cinder block walls could pass for a fallout compound. How far off are metal detectors?

“We will not defeat anti-Semitism with taller fences and more video cameras. We can’t just raise the drawbridge. We need offensive tactics, too.”

Even as our concerns become embedded in our architecture, things inside shul almost always feel the same. The cholent tastes the same, the niguns are the same. I avoid the same people and arrive during the same part of musaf. I’m glad we have someone at minyan with an eye on the door. I wouldn’t suggest that the threat against our places of worship does not warrant more rigorous security — of course it does. Feeling safe is essential to the work of connecting with God and with one another, even if our prayers betray a growing fear.

Consider, however, the implications of a strategy whose ethos is not outrunning the lion but outrunning the other human. Each new layer of security further isolates our communities from one another, weakening the exchange of knowledge, tradition and goodwill. I suspect I’m not the only Jew feeling less inclined to shul hop these days.

By insulating ourselves from danger, we wall ourselves off from the society we live in and remain responsible to. As Jewish culture is assailed and disinformation about us abounds, retreating from the public sphere runs contrary to our interests. We should be making ourselves more accessible, more inclusive, more involved in causes that are not our own. We will not defeat anti-Semitism with taller fences and more video cameras. We can’t just raise the drawbridge. We need offensive tactics; a corresponding arms race,  friendlier competition between our beloved institutions to fortify the values that make our community worth protecting.

Maybe Judaism has to circle the wagons but why not make one giant circle instead of a thousand smaller ones? Orthodox shuls should partner with other Orthodox shuls but they also should be organizing charity events with Reform congregations and symposia with Conservative temples. We must insist on finding religious and cultural common ground  because we need one another more than we realize.

This is the moment to emphasize interfaith and cross-cultural outreach. These engagements  humanize the stranger, strengthen alliances and remind us that we’re not going it alone. We can’t just ask other groups to show up for us. We have to show up for them, too.

When we build a wall between ourselves and society, we might become less vulnerable to the symptoms of hate — an armed guard deters a would-be attacker — but we become more susceptible to contracting the disease. No culture, religion, political identity or level of observance makes one safe from developing xenophobia, racism or apathy. That means all of us have to be not only vigilant in rooting out those strains of thought, but proactive in warding them off.

Louis Keene is a writer living in Los Angeles.  He’s on Twitter at @thislouis.