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Religious Leaders Fear Armed Guards Must Now Become the Norm After the Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting

6 minute read

For the past four years, the New Reform Temple in Kansas City, Mo., hasn’t hosted a Shabbat service or other religious event without an armed off-duty police officer present — a standard that Rabbi Alan Londy felt was necessary after a 2014 shooting in the city, where a white supremacist killed three people outside a Jewish community center and assisted living facility.

“Tragedies don’t come at predictable times, so you have to be vigilant all the time unfortunately,” Londy tells TIME. “That’s just part of what it means to be a congregation at this moment in history.”

The New Reform Temple is just one of many places of worship where armed security has become the norm, as a rise in anti-Semitic attacks and other hate crimes has forced religious leaders to take more drastic precautionary measures.

The deadly shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue on Saturday heightened a longstanding debate over how best to handle a growing number of security threats against religious institutions otherwise defined by inclusivity and openness. While there wasn’t an armed guard stationed at Tree of Life on Saturday, the synagogue often hired security on holidays and had recently installed new doors to allow congregants to escape the building more quickly, based on advice from homeland security officials.

But President Donald Trump immediately directed attention to the lack of an armed guard at the synagogue, claiming the shooting “has little to do with” the country’s gun laws — comments that drew criticism from some community members who said Trump was blaming the synagogue for a shooting that left 11 of its members dead.

“If they had protection inside, the results would have been far better,” Trump told reporters on Saturday. “This is a dispute that will always exist, I suspect. But if they had some kind of a protection inside the temple, maybe it could have been a very much different situation. They didn’t. And he was able to do things that, unfortunately, he shouldn’t have been able to do.”

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto refuted that argument, saying, “I don’t think that the answer to this problem is solved by having our synagogues, mosques and churches filled with armed guards or our schools filled with armed guards.”

But some synagogues, mosques and churches have already resorted to that in recent years. The Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Charlottesville, Virginia hired a security guard ahead of the white nationalist rally in the city last year. And an armed guard has since become “a fixture at our synagogue for the past 15 months,” synagogue president Alan Zimmerman wrote in a column for USA Today on Sunday.

After a gunman killed 26 people at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas last year, some church and state leaders proposed the regular use of professional security personnel or armed parishioners at church services.

And some mosques have also hired armed guards in response to anti-Muslim threats and attacks.

Leaders at the Council on American–Islamic Relations (CAIR) are currently struggling with an internal debate over whether to formally recommend that mosques and Islamic community centers across the country hire armed guards for Friday prayers. “It’s a double-edged kind of thing where you don’t want to frighten people into not exercising their religious rights, but you want people to be safe,” CAIR spokesperson Ibrahim Hooper tells TIME. “We’re looking at reaching out to mosque officials around the country to urge that they step up security measures — up to and including armed security personnel — but each mosque is different.”

Hooper says CAIR is concerned about potential threats to the Muslim community, especially in the week before the midterm elections, as Trump heats up anti-immigrant rhetoric. “We’re really in new territory here,” Hooper says.

There was a 57% increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. from 2016 to 2017, according to the most recent annual report by the Anti-Defamation League, which characterized the change as “the largest single-year increase on record.” There was also an overall increase in hate crimes from 2015 to 2016, according to FBI data, which shows that more than half of hate crimes motivated by religious bias in 2016 were anti-Jewish, and nearly 25% were anti-Muslim.

Jason Friedman — executive director of the Community Security Service, a nonprofit that trains volunteers from the Jewish community to provide security at synagogues — says the nonprofit started with 10 volunteers in 2007 and has now trained 4,000 people to search buildings for dangerous objects, control access to synagogues, and monitor their surroundings for suspicious behavior. He was inundated with “nonstop” email inquiries after the shooting on Saturday.

“The conversation used to be about whether or not security is needed,” Friedman says. “There’s still debate about how it’s provided, but the question about why security is needed has largely gone away.”

Friedman says Community Security Service volunteers now protect about 75 synagogues each week in the tri-state area around New York City, but he declined to disclose whether they are armed or not, arguing there needs to be a broader conversation about comprehensive security measures. “There are a lot of things that the Jewish community or any community can do tomorrow to increase security, and only focusing on armed guards or armed security can take away from that,” Friedman says. “It’s very expensive to maintain armed security, and there are a lot of hurdles in terms of training and certification.”

But some religious leaders have made the challenging calculation that employing an armed guard is a practical precautionary measure, even if ramping up security means contradicting an “ethos of inclusivity and openness,” Londy, the Kansas City rabbi, says. “Reality has caught up with us.”

When he began his rabbinical career in Baltimore 35 years ago, Londy says security was not even on his radar. Before 2014, his temple employed armed guards only on high holidays, but the Kansas City shooting became a “real wakeup call,” and his security plan intensified.

“I think there’s a general consensus that this is what we need to do, and that’s it. If I start focusing in on it too much, it’s kind of overwhelming to me because I get really angry about it. But I’m trying to stay focused in on what the needs of the present are and what the needs of our community are,” Londy says.

“Am I profoundly irritated by the fact that our synagogues, churches and mosques have to be so security conscious? I’m very upset by it, and I think it says something really bad about our country and about our leadership of our country. But you know, I’m not here to be prophetic, I’m here to be practical.”

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Write to Katie Reilly at Katie.Reilly@time.com