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Synagogues have to balance security with remaining welcoming, a Texas rabbi says

Congregation Beth Israel synagogue on Monday in Colleyville, Texas, where a 44-year-old British national held four people hostage for more than 10 hours over the weekend.
Emil Lippe
Getty Images
Congregation Beth Israel synagogue on Monday in Colleyville, Texas, where a 44-year-old British national held four people hostage for more than 10 hours over the weekend.

What security measures need to be in place for someone to worship safely?

The nation's attention has been on that question this week after a gunman held four people hostage for 10 hours in a Texas synagogue on Saturday. But for many American Jews, added security measures have been seen as essential to worship for years, and with them comes the question of how to implement the measures while remaining open and welcoming.

As antisemitism has risen in recent years across the U.S., many synagogues have responded by upping safety measures and training congregants on how to respond to possible threats. For many, Saturday's attack recalled the 2018 attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, when 11 worshippers were murdered.

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker was one of the captives held at Congregation Beth Israel over the weekend. He says instruction from the FBI and other groups on how to respond to an active shooter situation helped him and the other congregants escape safely.

"Over the years, my congregation and I have participated in multiple security courses from the Colleyville Police Department, the FBI, the Anti-Defamation League, and Secure Community Network. We are alive today because of that education," said Cytron-Walker in a statement on Sunday.

"I encourage all Jewish congregations, religious groups, schools, and others to participate in active-shooter and security courses."

Cytron-Walker says he threw a chair at the gunman and quickly ushered the two remaining hostages out of a nearby door and to safety; another hostage had been released earlier in the day. All four of the captives escaped unharmed. The alleged gunman, Malik Faisal Akram, 44, died on the scene.

Rabbi Andrew Marc Paley of Temple Shalom in Dallas toldMorning Edition his synagogue has given serious thought to safety measures as well.

Congregations must navigate a delicate balancing act between having strong security and still being open and welcoming to all types of people, Paley told NPR's Steve Inskeep. Paley says his synagogue coordinates with local authorities and has regular security on the grounds.

"We want to be welcoming, we want to encourage people to come in, we want to be a sanctuary, and at the same time, cognizant of the fact that there are real threats to real communities," Paley said. "And so balancing how that's done, under what circumstances, is tricky. It's not always successful. Sometimes we are on the side of being overly cautious, but being overly cautious saves lives."

Faith communities and others across the country are decrying the attack over the weekend as blatantly antisemitic at a time when cases of hate-fueled assaults on Jews are rising. The Anti-Defamation League reports antisemitic incidents are being recorded at record levels and Jews are consistently the most targeted religious group in the country.

In 2020, the Anti-Defamation League tracked a 40% increase in reported antisemitic incidents at Jewish institutions including synagogues, community centers and schools, compared to 2019.

This story originally appeared in the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nell Clark is an editor at Morning Edition and a writer for NPR's Live Blog. She pitches stories, edits interviews and reports breaking news. She started in radio at campus station WVFS at Florida State University, then covered climate change and the aftermath of Hurricane Michael for WFSU in Tallahassee, Fla. She joined NPR in 2019 as an intern at Weekend All Things Considered. She is proud to be a member of NPR's Peer-to-Peer Trauma Support Team, a network of staff trained to support colleagues dealing with trauma at work. Before NPR, she worked as a counselor at a sailing summer camp and as a researcher in a deep-sea genetics lab.
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