The High Holidays are changing for us in America and not in the ways you may expect. What I am referring to is not the solemn prayers, pulpit speeches, or even the prices of the seats, but rather to the security of our synagogues and religious institutions.
I remember as a child growing up, our synagogues were basically open places of worship, and there was nothing but the swinging door keeping you from your prayers. Things started to change in the 1990s with both the assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahane in a Manhattan hotel, as well as the terrorist bombings in the Buenos Aires Jewish community and even here at the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, then we began to see a police car sitting in front of the synagogue on high holidays. Of course, mostly just as “a deterrent” for troublemakers.
As time rolled on and 9/11 “changed everything,” we started to see an armed guard in front of the synagogue. And just a short time after that, probably with the wave of terror and bombings in the second Intifada in the Middle East, there was now an off-duty police car blocking the driveway to the building. Within a few years, came grants from the Department of Homeland Security to improve the physical security at our religious institutions, primarily at the perimeters with plenty of surveillance cameras, gates, window darkeners, barricades and panic buttons.
As anti-Semitism and anti-Israel rhetoric rose along with associated graffiti, Jewish name-calling, violent hate crimes, and calls for BDS on college campuses and from “progressive” members of Congress, guards began to become routine every Shabbat (and not just on the high holidays anymore). Slowly the number of guards at Synagogues, Yeshivas, and Jewish Community Centers increased — where one guard just wasn’t going to cut it anymore. Soon, there was one or two stationed outside the front doors, and more guards strategically positioned inside, presumably just in case the bullets started to fly. More recently, with increasing political divisiveness in America and synagogue shootings in both Pittsburgh (2018) and Poway (2019), for the first time this year, I saw that not only did the number of guards increase again, but also that they had much greater firepower–now they were carrying heavy duty assault rifles, and some members of the synagogue were also carrying weapons if you knew at who and where to look.
I know we have become very familiar with and even comforted in a way by all the security in Israel and the commonality of brave IDF soldiers and guards that protect the Jewish people every day there, but here, everyone always said, “it can’t happen in America.” Well, as we head back to the Synagogue for next Shabbat services and for Yom Kippur next week, let us all take note that times are changing–and right here in America–affecting the safety and security of the Jewish people–and it doesn’t matter what kind of Jew you are or the politics you have.
Take a look around you at the new security measures and people risking their lives for yours and your family. Take a moment to thank them. But also, recognize that the security isn’t there just for show, it’s there because the hatred and threats have tangibly increased along with the ever present means to carry them out. It is critical that we continue our vigilance and the strengthening of our security measures, because those that hate us for who we are and for our faith are not going away, and unfortunately, they may even continue to grow in numbers and resolve. However, none of us should live in fear and be forced to stay away from our religious institutions, our Torah study, and prayer, but rather to the contrary, we need to stand up strongly–in defiance and in faith!
While I don’t know what specific security measures we will see next Rosh Hashanah, I can say with almost absolute certainty that it will be more and not less and that you should definitely be taking notice.