Gun policies vary widely among Pittsburgh congregations
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SecurityNew white paper sets out firearm guidellines for synagogues

Gun policies vary widely among Pittsburgh congregations

While some congregations permit weapons on their premises, best practices mandate those who carry be highly trained, say experts

Cover of white paper on firearm guidelines
Cover of white paper on firearm guidelines

As synagogues and other houses of worship continue to be targeted by violence, many are wrestling with the question of if — and how — they should protect themselves with firearms.

For some, there is not a clear answer, as they weigh the disparate views of members who feel unsafe with any gun on the premises against those who feel unsafe without a gun in their own holster.

The conversation has taken on some urgency as the number of hate crimes in houses of worship rise. In 2018 — the year three Pittsburgh congregations were attacked in the Tree of Life building — there were 1,550 offenses motivated by religious bias committed in the United States, with about 57.8% of those motivated by anti-Jewish bias according to the FBI. Of those offenses, 15.4% occurred at houses of worship.

Since the attack at the Tree of Life building, many local congregations are reexamining their own policies on firearms, with most doing so as part of a larger security evaluation and plan.

To help congregations make informed decisions on best practices when it comes to guns, a new 23-page white paper titled “Firearms and the Faithful: Approaches to Armed Security in Jewish Communities,” created by the Secure Community Network, an initiative of The Jewish Federations of North America & the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, has been distributed widely to Jewish organizations across the country. The guidelines set forth in the document were developed through consultations with law enforcement officers and security experts.

“The main take-away is that if a congregation is going to have individuals who are armed in that congregation, the best case scenario is to have a trained law enforcement officer as your armed person within the congregation, whether they are on-duty or off-duty,” explained Shawn Brokos, director of community security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

“The reason we are advocating for current or former law enforcement officers is that those are the individuals who have received the highest level of training,” Brokos stressed. “There is a large distinction between being able to carry a weapon and being able to shoot a weapon for target practice, versus actively engaging a firearm in a tactical situation. And law enforcement are the only individuals who have had that extensive training.”

In the event of an active shooter, law enforcement is “trained to make split-second live-saving decisions whether to engage a target, and without this training there is the possibility of a friendly fire situation or a civilian or innocent bystander being harmed.”

If a congregant is to be armed, Brokos said, “they should either be a current or former law enforcement officer who has had significant training in the use of firearms.” Those with military training would “absolutely be a second choice.”

On most Shabbat mornings, about a half-dozen congregants are carrying concealed weapons at Chabad of the South Hills, approximately 25% of the typical number of adults worshipping there. While most of them have not had law enforcement training, three formerly served in the military and one is a firearms instructor.

After the shooting at the Tree of Life building, a security committee was formed at Chabad of the South Hills, explained Cliff Zlotnik, a member of that security committee.

“At the first meeting, we all took our conceal carry permits and made copies and left them in the rabbi’s office,” Zlotnik said. In the event there could be a delayed police response to an active shooter, “we thought it would be good for people to be carrying in the synagogue.”

Mt. Lebanon Police are aware that members of Chabad are armed, according to Rabbi Mendel Rosenblum, director of Chabad of the South Hills.

Zlotnik believes that having congregants with concealed weapons provides robust security protection in thwarting an active shooter due to the “element of surprise.”

Such was the case at a Texas church in December 2019, when two members of the church’s security team shot and killed an intruder who had opened fire on the congregation, murdering two members and severely injuring another.

“What I’m saddest about is it is going to take the taking out of an intruder to wake people up,” said Zlotnik.

At Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, the Conservative congregation’s position on members bringing guns to shul is “don’t ask, don’t tell,” according to the congregation’s president, Warren Sufrin.

“We had a member who since moved out of town, who we were aware was carrying,” said Sufrin. “We did speak with him, and asked him to obtain active shooter certification because we do feel that if someone does carry we don’t want them carrying without relevant experience.”

Beth El’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” position is “something that we struggled with,” Sufrin explained. “There are definitely gun supporters at Beth El who believe it is their right to carry arms. There are those who believe we should be a completely gun-free zone. We have looked — and we continue to look — at a variety of options as far as how to proceed, but there are legal questions on both sides. If you allow guns, and somebody is hurt because you allowed a gun, you potentially could have a legal problem. And likewise, if you disallow guns and somebody is hurt because you disallowed guns, you also have an issue. As of right now — not to say it won’t change — we have no policy.”

If there are congregants who come armed to Congregation Poale Zedeck, its president, Louis Felder, doesn’t “know anything about it,” he said. “Nor does the rabbi.”

While the Orthodox congregation has “no official policy” on guns, it does have a “paid armed security guard” every Shabbat.

“If people do have guns then, the party line is I don’t know anything about it,” said Felder. “And I will tell you, I really don’t know anything about it. I’m told by our security committee that we are not supposed to have any official policy.”

Temple Ohav Shalom, a Reform congregation in Allison Park, takes a different approach.

“We do not permit firearms on the premises,” said the congregation’s president, Arnie Begler, but he noted that “it is an interesting topic.”

“We have several members who have concealed weapon permits, and certainly after last Oct. 27, everybody had a lot of different ideas about what we should do,” he said.

The challenge in allowing congregants to bring concealed weapons to services is that “we are not really sure of their training or their expertise and you really don’t want anything to go wrong in that situation,” he said.

The congregation, which consists of about 150 families, has “always been very concerned with security,” noted Begler. “Like all temples on the High Holidays, we have always had off-duty McCandless policeman, and certainly after Oct. 27 we had a heightened off-duty police presence at the temple. Then we made the decision in January of last year that from a cost point of view, it was not in our budget to continue to do that. And also, as a congregation I think we wanted to get back to some sense of normalcy.”

At Shadyside’s Rodef Shalom Congregation, which currently also houses Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha and Dor Hadash — two of the three congregations attacked in the Oct. 27 shooting — no one other than trained security personnel is permitted to bring a weapon onto the premises, according to Karen Brean, Rodef Shalom’s president.

The congregation is currently in the midst of adopting a formal policy on the issue, which will go to the executive committee for approval next month.

The congregation has contracted with a security company and is protected by armed, trained and licensed security personnel on site and at off-site Rodef Shalom functions at all times, said Brean.

“There was not a lot of controversy,” she said. During a meeting about security following the attack at the Tree of Life building, “there were some people who were vocal about wanting to train people in the congregation, but that didn’t gain purchase. It was definitely a minority.”

Likewise, Congregation Beth Shalom in Squirrel Hill employs full-time, trained security personnel and prohibits others from bringing weapons onto the premises.

“Our policy is there are no weapons in the building, period,” said Steve Albert, head of Beth Shalom’s security committee, noting that policy had been in place “prior to Oct. 27” because the building houses two schools.

If someone brings a weapon to Beth Shalom, “they have to leave the building,” Albert said.

In addition to having an armed security guard on the premises, Beth Shalom “puts our trust in our secure perimeter,” he added. “All doors are locked all the time, and we have other security procedures in place.”
Brokos stressed that it is up to each individual synagogue to make its own decision about allowing congregants to bring concealed weapons to synagogue.

“But our guidance would be that those who are armed have the necessary training,” she said, which would need to be “ongoing.” pjc

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at
ttabachnick@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org

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