Amid the swirl of responses to the deadly Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in October was the New York Post report of a Colorado gun shop owner named Mel “Dragonman,” who publicly offered free guns, ammo and firearms training to congregational rabbis. According to the report, responses to his offer were “mixed.” One congregant appreciated the dealer’s intentions but added “arming people is … not part of the solution.” Another answered that while she was fine with the idea, she drew the line at the prospect of her rabbi carrying an AR-15 during services.
While this story is obviously a cheap tabloid throwaway on the surface, it does reflect a serious and increasing intra-communal conversation over the security of synagogues and Jewish institutions post-Pittsburgh. Indeed, it would not be an overstatement to suggest that the Tree of Life massacre is causing an American Jewish reckoning over the threat of anti-Semitic violence with a gravity we have not seen in generations.
According to press reports, increasing numbers of synagogues have already hired armed guards or are seriously considering doing so. The New York Post reports, “Rabbi Gary Moskowitz, a former cop who founded a group called the International Security Coalition of Clergy, said he has been inundated with more than 150 calls from ‘scared’ rabbis, congregants and non-Jews who want guns or self-defense training, which includes learning how to hurl weights and tomahawk axes.” The rabbi of a prominent Kansas City congregation explained his decision to hire an armed guard thus: “You have to be vigilant all the time, unfortunately. That’s just part of what it means to be a congregation at this moment in history.”
Other synagogues and organizations, however, are resisting the urge to resort to armed security, citing an unwillingness to let “fear-mongering” and “trauma-triggering” (embodied by Trump’s comment that an armed guard could have prevented the tragedy) dictate their approach to their own communal security. As New York-based organization Jews For Economic and Racial Justice (JFREJ) responded in its statement:
We know that antisemitism is a pillar of white supremacy, and that as white supremacy rears its head more brazenly, so does antisemitism. In recognizing the very real need for safety in synagogues and Jewish communal spaces, we must be skeptical of calls made by Trump and others to increase police presence in our community spaces.
This issue is also fraught because the American Jewish community is more diverse than many often assume — and vulnerable minority groups within the Jewish community members are openly expressing their fears that an increased police presence or hired security would cause to feel unsafe and unwelcome in their own houses of worship. This fall — even before the Tree of Life tragedy — one synagogue president wrote about this very issue after his synagogue board discussed congregational security during the High Holidays:
Not only do we believe that public or private police won’t keep us safe, we decided that these kinds of security measures could very possibly hurt our community in grave ways. Our congregants include people of color, trans and gender non-conforming folk, queers and their families, peace activists and others who have all been targets of police and state violence…. The risk to individuals and the fabric of our congregation outweighs any potential benefit.
In a widely read article following the attack, Bentley Addison expressed his personal feelings about the impact an armed police presence would have on him as a Black American Jew, pointing out that “with police officers in synagogues, Black Jews and Jews of Color won’t feel safer at all.” Addison concluded forcefully that, following Pittsburgh, congregations should “prioritize the safety of all Jews.”
As a result, some congregations and Jewish organizations are promoting decidedly different models of communal security. For instance, JFREJ, in partnership with Jewish congregations and organizations and allies in the New York City police accountability movement, recently released a “Commit to the Community Safety Pledge” in which Jewish institutions can commit to “develop a community safety plan that aims to honor all who come through our doors.” The text of the pledge further notes:
People targeted by state-enforced violence in our country have had to do this work for centuries, and we are grateful to learn from the wisdom they’ve developed. The strategies include interfaith collaboration and crisis de-escalation, as well as long-term interventions such as creating alternative safety teams, rapid response networks, and broader cultural education around antisemitism and white supremacy.
In a similar vein, Jewish Voice for Peace’s Deputy Director Stefanie Fox has stated that the organization is exploring the possibility of establishing an “interfaith security coalition” in which different faith communities would band together to protect each other’s worship spaces. “If we’re doing the work to deepen our practice and skills around safety outside of policing, that capacity can and should serve not only our Jewish communities but also our interfaith partners in the crosshairs of white nationalist and state violence,” Fox said.
On a strictly practical level, Jewish institutions are actively considering institutional safety strategies such as evacuation plans that have the potential to save lives more effectively than police or armed guards. They also stress the need for these plans to be collectively developed and shared and not simply left to “trained professionals.” As one Jewish organizational consultant recently put it, Jewish synagogue security functions should be “de-siloed,” advising that “safety and security needs to be shared by clergy, operations staff, those responsible for community engagement as well as lay leaders.”
For contemporary Jews of course, this conversation is nothing new. In the post-Holocaust world, the issue of Jewish safety and security is complex and fraught — particularly with the establishment of a Jewish nation-state whose very raison d’etre is to safeguard Jewish lives. In many ways, it might be claimed that Israel itself embodies Trump’s response to the Pittsburgh shooting: that the only true form of protection comes from the barrel of a gun.
However, the 70-year history of the state of Israel has demonstrated the fatal fallacy of this response. In the 21st century, the state founded with the ostensible mission of ensuring Jewish security has ironically become the one place in the world where Jews feel the most unsafe: an over-militarized garrison state that is literally building higher and higher walls between itself and its “enemies.” And of course, the establishment and maintenance of an ethnically Jewish nation state has created an even more unsafe environment for the millions of non-Jews who happen to live there.
On a final note, it’s worth noting that this current conversation is taking place as the Jewish festival of Hanukkah approaches. For many, this holiday is a celebration of Jewish armed might against the anti-Semitic persecution of the Assyrian Seleucid Empire in 168 BCE. This is largely due to the influence of its observance in Israel, where this relatively minor Jewish festival has been transformed into a celebration of military might by Zionist founders who identified with the Hanukkah story’s central characters, the Maccabees — the priestly Jewish clan whose military victory over the Assyrians resulted in the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem and a brief period of Jewish independence.
However, while many might reflexively accept Israel’s framing of the Maccabee narrative, the history of Hanukkah is not nearly as simple as this version might indicate. As it would turn out, the Jewish commonwealth established by the Maccabees (known as the Hasmonean Kingdom) quickly became corrupt, oppressing its own Jewish citizens and waging ill-advised wars of conquest against surrounding nations. In the end, it didn’t take long for the Romans to move in and mop up. All in all, the last period of Jewish political sovereignty in the land lasted less than 100 years.
The Talmudic rabbis who developed classical Jewish tradition as we know it were not, to put it mildly, huge fans of Judah Maccabee and his followers, and they were loath to glorify the Books of the Maccabees (which was never canonized as part of the Hebrew Bible). In fact, the festival of Hanukkah is scarcely mentioned in the Talmud beyond a brief debate about how to light a menorah and a legend about a miraculous vial of oil that burned for eight days. Notably, the words of the prophet Zechariah, “Not by might and not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of Hosts,” was chosen to be recited as the prophetic portion for the festival.
In the end, it’s altogether appropriate that this current Jewish communal conversation about the true nature of Jewish safety and security is taking place as the holiday of Hanukkah approaches. In the aftermath of Pittsburgh, American Jews find themselves considering these age-old questions anew: How will we respond to those who seek to do us harm? Can we depend upon the physical force of state security to save us? Or will we answer with a deeper vision of communal security — that none of us will be safe until all of us are safe?