(JTA) — Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein said his Chabad of Poway could not afford to hire an armed guard. Had it been able, or if the government had helped the synagogue bring in one, he believes the deadly attack there April 27 could have been averted.
“If I had the funding, we may have been spared. How many more dead bodies will we have to see before we act?” he told The New York Times.
But hiring a security guard should not be the only priority in terms of security, said Jason Friedman, the executive director of the Community Security Service, an organization that has trained more than 4,000 Jewish volunteers across the country in how to keep their synagogues safe.
Hiring a guard can be “a great first step,” Friedman said, but “if your congregation is not engaged in the security process, you’re not getting the full extent of what you’re paying for,” Friedman told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on April 29.
The shooting at the Poway synagogue, in which a 60-year-old woman was killed and three others, including the rabbi, were injured, is the latest chapter in an ongoing American discussion about security in the age of mass shootings. Like the massacre six months ago at a Pittsburgh synagogue, the shooting in suburban San Diego is being mined for lessons in safety by a Jewish community deeply shaken by a rise in anti-Semitism.
The Community Security Service, or CSS, anticipates attacks on synagogues like Poway. It focuses on preventive “boots-on-the-ground” measures by training community members to spot suspicious behavior and thus avert attacks. Synagogues are encouraged to post trained volunteers at their entrances to watch for potential attackers and make their members aware of their surroundings.
“What we’re trying to show is that there are a lot of ways they can make themselves safer, it just takes time and commitment,” Friedman said.
CSS had not worked with the Chabad synagogue in Poway, Friedman said. Neither had the Secure Community Network, a security group that also works with synagogues and Jewish groups.
In the fall, the Chabad did convene an event about synagogue security following the Pittsburgh shooting on what to do in the case of a future attack.
Poway Mayor Steve Vaus, who attended the meeting with representatives of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, said law enforcement shared tips, including “if you can run away, run away; if you can hide, hide; if you can’t hide, challenge the shooter.’”
During the April 27 shooting in Poway, “all of that happened,” the mayor told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “and I have no doubt that that meeting contributed to saving lives.”
Two people intervened with the shooter. One was a community member, Oscar Stewart, who ran toward the shooter and chased him out of the building, according to the county Sheriff’s Department.
“Mr. Stewart risked his life to stop the shooter and saved lives in the process,” the Sheriff’s Department said in a statement April 28.
An off-duty Border Patrol agent, Jonathan Morales, shot at the attacker, hitting his car.
Friedman says exclusively focusing on arming congregants can distract from other safety measures synagogues can take.
“Weapons certainly have their place in security, but one has to be careful not to substitute the presence of a weapon for tried-and-true security theories and training,” Friedman said.
Post-Pittsburgh, he said, the number of synagogues seeking training from CSS “dramatically increased.”
Still, there’s a long way to go.
“I don’t think that there are many synagogues across the country that are really prepared [for an attack],” Friedman said.
The Poway attack came as no surprise to Michael Masters, who heads the Secure Community Network. SCN coordinates security for Jewish organizations across the country and is affiliated with the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“We have seen an increase in targeting of houses of worship generally, and we have seen an increase in targeting of Jewish houses of worship specifically,” Masters told JTA from Poway, where he is meeting with community leaders in the wake of the shooting.
“That coincides with an increase in anti-Semitic incidents around the United States and around the world, as well as am increase in hate crimes against our community and an increase in threats.”
SCN has worked with 147 federations across the country, as well as more than 50 partner organizations and 300-plus Jewish communities to provide security assessments. After conducting an assessment, it recommends security strategies tailored to the needs and circumstances of the particular organization.
Friedman said the threat picture itself has also changed in recent years.
When CSS was founded in 2007, the primary threats came from international terrorist groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda, as well as large white supremacist organizations. Now they often come from individuals who aren’t necessarily affiliated with a group. That means the targets have changed too. As a result, less prominent communities, like the Squirrel Hill neighborhood in Pittsburgh or Poway, 20 miles north of San Diego, are more vulnerable.
“Ten years ago they probably wouldn’t be identified as targets of this kind of attack,” Friedman said. “Now due to these homegrown violent extremists, they’re able to attack more locally with a focus on their own locale.”
Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the federal government has made more money available to houses of worship, especially synagogues and mosques, and other vulnerable institutions. This year’s spending bill included $60 million for fiscal year 2019 to fund the Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which helps synagogues and other houses of worship, religious day schools and a variety of nonprofits improve the security of their buildings.
The Department of Homeland Security, which administers the program, awards grants of as much as $150,000 to eligible nonprofits at risk of terrorist attacks. The nonprofits use the funding to acquire and install items ranging from fences, lighting and video surveillance to metal detectors and blast-resistant doors, locks and windows.
The Poway suspect, a 19-year-old nursing student, is believed to have posted an online manifesto on a forum popular with the “alt-right” that said he was inspired by the Tree of Life synagogue gunman in Pittsburgh and the shooter who killed 50 at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The suspect also called President Donald Trump “Zionist, Jew-loving, anti-white.”
Masters said that following Pittsburgh and Poway, the conversation surrounding future attacks has changed.
“We used to say it’s a question of ‘not if but when,’” he said. “Now we say ‘not when, but when again?’”
(Gabrielle Birkner contributed to this report from Poway.)