Congregations find the right High Holiday balance between being welcoming and secure
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Congregations find the right High Holiday balance between being welcoming and secure

Relationships are key to keeping worshipers safe at local synagogues

Congregation Beth Shalom Executive Director Robert Gleiberman doesn't think finding the right balance between be welcoming and keeping people secure should be a difficult issue. File photo
Congregation Beth Shalom Executive Director Robert Gleiberman doesn't think finding the right balance between be welcoming and keeping people secure should be a difficult issue. File photo

For Jonathan Young, making people feel welcome and secure are two halves of the same coin — and both begin with relationships.

Young, president of Shaare Torah Congregation in Squirrel Hill, said that members don’t need tickets to attend services at his congregation, and it is open to all who need a place to worship on the High Holidays.

“You can come in, go upstairs and, if there’s no one’s name on a seat, you’re welcome to it,” he said.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t procedures to keep members and guests safe while worshiping, though.

Shaare Torah’s security team is well seasoned and tenured, Young explained. The guards who greet members coming to the synagogue on both Shabbos and holidays know the community and those who attend services regularly. They are partnered with volunteers from the congregation who serve as part of the security committee.

“Our guards are really personable,” Young said. “The guys that have been in front of Shaare Torah regularly engage with people walking up and down Murray Avenue on a Saturday morning. If you stand outside every Saturday morning, you know the routine. You know who’s driving by, who’s going to Giant Eagle.”

If, as the maxim states, location is everything, Shaare Torah exists at a spot on Murray Avenue that could be considered prime real estate. As a result, its security team has helped keep the broader community safe as well as its members, assisting in the apprehension of criminals committing antisemitic acts not associated with the congregation.

Young said that regular training is provided for the security committee to make it more effective and to help ensure people feel welcome as well as safe.

Chabad of Squirrel Hill Rabbi Yisroel Altein said that the relationship between its security guard and its members is important.

“If it’s a regular, he obviously lets them straight in,” Altein said. “If it’s someone that isn’t usually in shul, he tries to make eye contact with me to make sure I know the person or that I feel comfortable.”

In the rare occurrence that a person is unknown to the security guard and the rabbi, a quick conversation ensues to ensure a person is there to attend services, the rabbi said.

No matter if it’s a High Holiday or Shabbos service, the goal is the same, Altein explained: “We try to give everyone that walks into shul a personal welcome.”

Like Shaare Torah, Chabad of Squirrel Hill doesn’t require tickets for the High Holidays but does ask those planning to attend services to register in advance. Its security guard won’t prevent someone who didn’t reserve a spot in advance from attending, but reservations help the rabbi to be prepared.

“In fact, someone joked with me, ‘Rabbi, your email is contradicting. It says everyone is welcome and no reservations are necessary; please reserve your spot here.’”

Altein said that by interacting with everyone coming through the door, attendees feel both welcome and secure: “No one is like, who’s that guy; why is he sitting in shul?”

Congregation Beth Shalom’s strategy to be both a welcoming and a secure place to celebrate the High Holidays might be summed up as “a good offense starts with a good defense.”

“We communicate with our congregation what entrances are open,” Executive Director Robert Gleiberman said. “All others are shut down.”

Security is present not just outside but throughout the building, he said.

That, though, is only one tier of the congregation’s system. Beth Shalom issues passes that must be presented and checked by volunteers to worship there on the High Holidays.

“We have greeters greeting everyone, welcoming them,” Gleiberman said. “We have ushers by the sanctuary, helping people find their seats and know where to go and greeting people, as well.”

Those without passes can still worship at Beth Shalom, but they are required to stop at the synagogue’s office first where they will be issued the required document.

Making people feel both welcome and secure isn’t complicated, Gleiberman said.

“We have everything in place to greet all of the people that are coming,” he said. “We use our common sense to make everybody feel as warm and welcome as possible.

Temple David President Reena Goldberg said the Monroeville congregation has practiced its addition in the run-up to the High Holidays.

“We’ve added more cameras. We have more ways of communicating with each other. We’ve had more training so that all the volunteers at Temple that help with security have been trained by experts,” she said.

Like most other congregations, she said, Temple David has a police presence for the holidays as well as a group of volunteers greeting those in attendance. They are the same faces seen performing the same function throughout the year.

During the High Holidays, those greeters check people’s tickets and make sure those attending services receive a “happy New Year” greeting and a smile.

If someone who isn’t a member comes to the synagogue during the High Holidays, they should expect to provide contact information to the Temple.

“Basically, we’ll need to get all of their information,” Goldberg said, “because we’re not going to take a chance with anyone. We’re going to ask who they are, their name, why are they there. We would follow up with them afterward, like we do with all guests to thank them for coming and see if they wanted to receive membership materials.”

In the end, Young, of Shaare Torah, said that the community appreciates the security provided by its congregations.

“People, certainly from Pittsburgh, understand what we’ve been dealing with and why security has to be there,” he said. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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