In some cities, synagogues ask that you call ahead to let them know you are coming. In Stockholm two years ago, the guard outside had been alerted to my coming. But he took no chances. So I found myself on a snowy street, reciting select prayers for him. Only after proving my bona fides did he let me in.
That was once an experience limited to when I traveled abroad. Now American Jews like myself experience it at home — in our own synagogues, and in those we attend in American cities across this country. We look across the street at the big church and can’t help but notice that there are no guards there.
A couple of summers ago, I was in the Berkshires on a Sunday morning driving through one of those innumerable picturesque small towns. Along the way, I passed a large church, right on the main street. It dated back to Revolutionary times. Something seemed off to me. The four large entry doors were wide open. Congregants stood happily greeting people as they entered. Then I realized what was discordant. No armed guard. No security check. No one told to “please use the side entrance, because it’s more secure.” Just an open invitation: Come in. Welcome.
I have not walked through the main entrance to my synagogue since October 2018, after the shootings at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue. For over three years now, that door has remained locked. When I asked why, I was told, “It’s too wide open, it can’t be made secure.” I understood. You won’t find wide-open doors at any synagogue in Europe or North America. It is only after you get past the guards that you find welcome, though welcome is still there for those who seek it.
It is not just the large synagogues that fear for security. I hear from students that they think twice about going to Hillel services, the campus Jewish chaplaincy. Some out of fear for physical safety. Some out of worry about the slings and barbs that might come from other students in the dorm. I met parents whose child had been accepted to a very selective college. He wears a kipa and was struggling with whether to replace it for the next four years with a baseball cap. Increasingly I hear: Jews are contemplating going underground.
We are shaken. We are not OK. But we will bounce back. We are resilient because we cannot afford not to be. That resiliency is part of the Jewish DNA. Without it, we would have disappeared centuries ago. We refuse to go away. But we are exhausted.
Rabbi Cytron-Walker credited his survival to the active-shooter training and security courses that he and his congregants took in order to prepare for just such a moment. He knew to stay calm and knew the right moment to fling a chair at his captor and dash for the exit with the other captives. The Jewish community offers such training on a regular basis to an array of Jewish institutions, especially to our synagogues and our schools.