Shuls beef up security following Pittsburgh attack

The Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto synagogue occupies a large profile in the northern precincts of the Greater Toronto Area. With more than 800 member families, there’s always something going on at the shul, so its doors open at 5:30 a.m. and close at 10:00 each night.

People come and go all day and in the next little while, shul members, staff, caterers and others who have a reason to be there, will be given digital key fobs that will allow them to get into the building through a number of electronically controlled entry points. In addition, uniformed security guards will be posted in the building to monitor everyone who comes and goes, and synagogue security volunteers will be more vigilant when it comes to building safety, said Morris Maron, its director of operations.

Between the contracted security company and synagogue volunteers, “there’s always someone at the door,” Maron said.

Members of the congregation have become more concerned about safety in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, in which an anti-Semitic gunman killed 11 and wounded many others during Shabbat services at the Tree of Life Synagogue.

Adding the security guards, rolling out the fobs and putting better locks on doors are some of the recent steps taken by the shul to ensure security, but not the first, Maron said. In the past, the synagogue has installed a camera system and put security film in the windows, to prevent them from shattering. It has also offered self-defence and CPR training to its members. And last summer, well before the Pittsburgh attack, personnel from the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) visited the shul to go over security issues.

The new measures don’t come cheap. “It’s obviously costing us a lot of money,” Maron said.


To raise the needed funds, the shul imposed a security levy on members of $100 per family per year, “but that doesn’t come close to the cost,” he said. That will cover about 40 per cent of the shul’s security needs, with the remainder paid for out of the synagogue’s operating budget.

No one at the shul has balked at paying the fee, he said, adding that, “We’re thinking of doing some kind of fundraising to cover the increased security cost.”

In the meantime, the shul has found several volunteers from the congregation who help provide security, including checking visitors’ bags.

And the shul has reached out to local law enforcement, who have been very co-operative in increasing patrols during busy times, Maron said.

Right now, the midtown Toronto address that is home to Congregation Habonim is a construction site, but even before the building was demolished to make way for a new edifice, security measures had been put in place. However, after the shooting in Pittsburgh and a surge in anti-Semitism, “Whatever we had in the past was clearly not adequate,” said Eli Rubenstein, the congregation’s spiritual leader.

In ancient times, Abraham and Sarah had a tent open on all sides, to be a welcoming place for visitors. Synagogues too are meant to be open and welcoming, but “we cannot be naive” about changing circumstances, and enhancing security in the proposed new building is being looked at, he said.

“We had a lot of concerned people expressing concern about this, and we’re taking a serious look at it,” Rubenstein said.

Akiva Sandler is a security consultant who lived in Israel and served in a counter-terrorism unit. A native of South Africa, he provides security advice to the Shaarei Shomayim Synagogue, one of the city’s largest Orthodox shuls, and to other Jewish institutions.

The events in Pittsburgh have resulted in a number of clients calling him for help. “They feel they have to do something,” he said. “They’re interested in changing things. People want to know what they can and cannot do, but they are restricted by financial constraints.”

Akiva Sandler

There is a growing level of anti-Semitism in Canada and the United States, but Canadian Jews remain rather complacent about the risk of physical harm, he said.

“I don’t feel we’re at a high level of security.” Instead, Sandler believes there is “complacency and a false sense of security in our community.”

Nevertheless, to enhance their security, synagogues need to spend money to make their buildings a less attractive target and to “mitigate loss of life and injuries,” if an attack does take place.

It’s a risk/reward scenario in which congregations have to balance the risk versus budgetary limitations and the likelihood of inconveniencing members.

Sandler does not believe the threat to Jewish institutions is going away. Canada is an open and welcoming society, but in Europe, Jewish buildings are guarded by armed police officers.

“Canada is 10 to 15 years behind in regard to violent anti-Semitic hate crimes,” he said.

In France, soldiers are stationed outside synagogues, and in Britain, Australia and South Africa, guards patrol Jewish buildings.

In assessing the state of security in Toronto, Sandler believes many institutions are looking into making improvements, but don’t have the money to implement major changes.

Hiring a full-time security guard can cost $40,000 a year and “that’s prohibitive for many organizations,” he said.

Smaller shuls, in particular, find it difficult to fund the measures that would secure their buildings.

The federal Security Infrastructure Grant is available, but it only pays for physical improvements, not to hire people, he noted.

Ryan Hartman, director of the National Community Security Program of CIJA, acknowledged that “there has been an increased amount of concern and attention to communal security matters conveyed from our stakeholders within the Jewish community.”

Ryan Hartman, CIJA’s new national director of community safety, served for 25 years in the Canadian Armed Forces
Ryan Hartman, CIJA’s national director of community safety, served for 25 years in the Canadian Armed Forces.

But based on information from Canadian law enforcement and security agencies, Ryan said, “There is no increased threat to the Canadian Jewish community as a result of the incident in Pittsburgh.”

Nevertheless, what happened there has spooked many in the community, who are looking for ways to improve security.

“Every synagogue I have visited in Canada, whether large or small, possesses the capacity to ensure that basic security measures are utilized. This can be as simple as locking your doors to control who has access to your facility and through educating your congregation to be vigilant and situationally aware.

“The procurement and application of physical security enhancements can be expensive,” Hartman acknowledged. “However, there are very effective ways to mitigate security threats through educating and training of our most effective security tool – people.

“Security training is offered for free through CIJA and the (Jewish Federations of Canada’s) National Community Security Program, as well as through various programs that are offered by municipal police services across Canada.”

Yet, he added, “Our most effective resource is our people, and through the education and training of this security resource, we will best situate ourselves to mitigate security threats today and for the future.”