Synagogues, security and solidarity

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After the mass murder of Jews in Pittsburgh, New York’s shuls start thinking about the unthinkable — and they’re confronting horror and hate with soul-searching and hope


  • These “Stars of Hope” adorn a makeshift memorial a block or two from the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh on Tuesday. They were painted by the children and parents of Congregation Rodeph Sholom on the Upper West Side as an offering of love and a display of solidarity with the grieving Jewish community of Squirrel Hill. Photo: Jeff Parness / Stars of HOPE Program

  • Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks at an Oct. 28 rally for interfaith unity outside Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue. Photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

  • The children and parents of Congregation Rodeph Sholom on the Upper West Side painted these 45 “Stars of Hope” on Sunday – and took them to Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood on Tuesday to express solidarity with the Jewish shooting victims. Photo courtesy of Rodeph Sholom

  • These “Stars of Hope” adorn a makeshift memorial a block or two from the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh on Tuesday. They were painted by the children and parents of Congregation Rodeph Sholom on the Upper West Side as an offering of love and a display of solidarity with the grieving Jewish community of Squirrel Hill. Photo: Jeff Parness / Stars of HOPE Program

  • Police increased security at Park East Synagogue on East 67th Street following the Oct. 27 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. Photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

“We live the exact values the assailant repudiated. And we have no intention of ever backing down from them.”

Rabbi Robert Levine, Congregation Rodeph Sholom

Moorish and Medieval. Romanesque and Byzantine. Gothic and Deco. Brutalist and Expressionist.

Every architectural style under the sun was employed in the golden age of Manhattan synagogue construction.

It started after the Civil War and lasted into the 1960s, and hundreds of houses of worship came to life in that century of faith.

They had two things in common: In culture, design and physical plant, most were open and inviting and welcoming. And they were never built as fortress redoubts to ward off gun-toting domestic terrorists.

Now, their potential vulnerability to catastrophic attack is on display — despite years of hardening infrastructure and seeking protection with bollards, stone blocks, squad cars, private security and off-duty cops.

The hate-fueled massacre of 11 Jewish worshippers at the Tree of Life Congregation on a Sabbath morning in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27 by an anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant killer shouting “All Jews must die” has shaken the faith community to its core.

Security protocols are being changed. Extra metal detectors installed. Cameras purchased. Eblast injunctions to carry ID cards dispatched en masse.

But more fundamentally, a communal soul-searching about the rise of a venomous anti-Semitism in America is underway.

And even as interfaith prayer vigils are held at Central Synagogue, Sutton Place Synagogue and Congregation Ansche Chesed, and candlelight vigils take place in Union Square, and a more religious vigil was held at Yeshiva University, and Mayor Bill de Blasio and other officials offered consolation at Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue, rabbis and congregants alike were asking the same urgent questions:

Can it happen here? Is there a gunman like Robert Bowers, who opened fire during a baby-naming ceremony, felling victims who ranged in age from 54 to 97, lurking amongst us? And what do we do to combat it?

“I don’t want to say it’s desperate,” said Rabbi Jonathan Glass, who has helmed the Tribeca Synagogue on downtown White Street since 1989. “But it’s become a very, very serious situation.”

The shul, which serves roughly 100 families, has received several target-hardening grants from the Dept. of Homeland Security, which funds a specialized training program in active-shooter preparedness that is typically given to around seven or eight members of his board. That’s no longer enough, the rabbi has come to believe.

“Now, we’re thinking about opening it up, and encouraging as many people in our congregation to participate as possible,” he said.

Rabbi Ben Tzion Krasnianski, executive director of the Chabad of the Upper East Side, on Sept. 30 had his own lesser experience with what the NYPD branded a hate crime. A public sukkah set up just yards away from Gracie Mansion to mark the festive Jewish holiday of Sukkot was spray painted in black and desecrated with the phrase “FREE GAZA.” No arrests have been made.

The rabbi said he didn’t learn of the horrors in Pittsburgh until 5:30 p.m. on Saturday when a shaken worshipper seeking comfort came in for afternoon prayers and related the news, which he could not know because Orthodox observers eschew access to phones and TV on the Sabbath.

“A Jew is a Jew is a Jew — Reform, Orthodox or Conservative — and their only crime, the only reason they were attacked, the only reason for the outburst of a madman, was that they were Jewish,” Rabbi Krasnianski said. “We have to respond to darkness with light,” he added.

Chabad on East 77th Street, which is affiliated with the Lubavitch Hasidic movement, uses a global security firm staffed by ex-officers of Shin Bet, the Israeli secret service, and upgrades and enhancements are always a possibility, he said.


“But I hope we never reach that point where we go the European-style, where the synagogues are fortresses, or the South American-style, where they don’t let you in if they don’t know you,” Krasnianski added.

Many synagogues are now tinkering with their security plans. In a “Dear Congregants” letter for instance, Rabbi Joshua Davidson of Temple Emanu-El wrote that from now on, entry for all members and visitors to services and events will be moved away from Fifth Avenue and confined to 1 East 65th Street.

“Additional security personnel will be deployed,” he wrote.

But security is only part of the story. So is abiding faith:

“We live the exact values that the assailant repudiated,” said Rabbi Robert Levine of Congregation Rodeph Sholom on the Upper West Side. “And we have no intention of ever backing down from them ... No anti-Semite will dictate how we live — never has and never will.”

To that end, Jeff Parness, one of his congregants, traveled to Pittsburgh on Tuesday, got to a makeshift memorial within a block or two of the Tree of Life, and in a phone interview at the scene, told of how he had brought with him 45 “Stars of Hope” created on Sunday by the shul’s children and their parents in solidarity with the victims.

“When you see art bearing hopeful messages, drawn organically by the hand of a child, you see that we are all God’s children, you see that we are all human, and you know that you are not alone,” Parness said.

Then he hung some of the one-foot-high painted stars, crafted on the Upper West Side, at the memorial, attached others to a police barricade and set off to sprinkle the rest all about Squirrel Hill.

a week of terror

Beginning the morning of Oct. 24, when evacuated office workers and residents flooded into the streets around Columbus Circle following the discovery of an explosive device at CNN’s Time Warner Center headquarters, Manhattan was the site of three bomb scares in the course of three days last week.

The devices — which FBI Director Christopher Wray described as IEDs, or improvised explosive devices — were among at least 15 found around the country that were mailed to CNN and prominent Democratic political figures frequently criticized by President Donald Trump and conservative media outlets. Federal officials allege the bombs were sent by a Florida man who is a supporter of President Trump. None of the devices detonated and no one was injured.

Monday, Oct. 22

Police respond to an explosive device found at the Westchester County residence of billionaire investor and liberal political contributor George Soros.

Tuesday, Oct. 23

The Secret Service intercepts packages containing explosive devices addressed to former President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C. and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Chappaqua, N.Y.

Wednesday, Oct. 24

At approximately 10:00 a.m., the Time Warner Center is evacuated after a bomb is found in the mailroom of CNN’s headquarters. Police remove the device to an NYPD bomb range in the Bronx.

“This clearly is an act of terror attempting to undermine our free press and leaders of this country through acts of violence,” Mayor Bill de Blasio says.

Three additional packages addressed to Democratic political figures are recovered around the country.

Thursday, Oct. 25

At 3:14 a.m., Trump tweets, “Funny how lowly rated CNN, and others, can criticize me at will, even blaming me for the current spate of Bombs and ridiculously comparing this to September 11th and the Oklahoma City bombing, yet when I criticize them they go wild and scream, ‘it’s just not Presidential!’”

At approximately 6:30 a.m., police remove an explosive device delivered to the Tribeca restaurant and offices of actor Robert De Niro. Later, law enforcement officials in Delaware announce the discovery of two bombs addressed to former Vice President Joe Biden.

Friday, Oct. 26

At approximately 8:00 a.m., police intercept a suspicious package at a U.S. Postal Service facility on West 52nd Street. The package was intended to be delivered to CNN headquarters and was addressed to James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence who is a now a contributor at CNN.

By the end of the day, law enforcement officials recover three additional devices mailed to Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Kamala Harris and billionaire progressive activist Tom Steyer.

At approximately 11:15 a.m., federal agents arrest Cesar Sayoc, 56, in Plantation, Fla. Sayoc was arrested in the vicinity of his white van, which was plastered with stickers and images, including photos of Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, images of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other Democrats overlaid with crosshairs, and a graphic reading “CNN sucks.”

Federal prosecutors charge Sayoc with five crimes in the Southern District of New York, including interstate transportation of an explosive and illegal mailing of explosives. Sayoc faces up to 58 years in prison if convicted.

NYPD Commissioner James P. O’Neill praises police, members of the media and the public for their assistance. “New Yorkers don’t back down,” O’Neill said. “They step up every single time. We’ve been through things like this and much worse.”

Monday, Oct. 29

Federal officials recover a suspected 15th device, this one addressed to CNN’s offices in Atlanta.

Sayoc appears in federal court in Florida for a pretrial hearing. He reportedly had a list of over 100 additional potential targets. Sayoc will be tried in New York.

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