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Jewish synagogue in Utah holds active shooter training

Rabbi Sam Spector discusses the security measures that have been put in place at Congregation Kol Ami during an active shooter training at the synagogue in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

By GILLIAN FRIEDMAN, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — On a chilly Wednesday evening in late November, over 60 people gathered in the sanctuary of Congregation Kol Ami, Utah’s largest Jewish synagogue.

It seemed like any other night at the synagogue, with congregants exchanging warm greetings and admiring the large, nine-branched silver menorah perched on the altar, shined to a sparkle in anticipation of the upcoming Hanukkah holiday, which began on Dec. 2.

But as the congregants’ chatter hushed to begin the night’s agenda, they were faced with an unfamiliar sight — one that seemed completely out of place in the warm, light-filled sanctuary.

Before them stood not a rabbi in front of a prayer book, but two armed police officers in front of a PowerPoint screen, the words “RUN, HIDE, FIGHT!” splashed in bold black letters across the first slide.

Those three words got straight to the point of the night’s gathering: to train the congregation to know how to respond if an active shooter opened fire on the congregation.

Kol Ami was spurred to organize the active shooter training as response to the mass shooting that occurred on Oct. 27 at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Eleven people were killed and seven were injured when a gunman opened fire during Saturday morning prayer services — the deadliest assault on Jews in United States history.

“It is unfortunate that we must be here today for this purpose, but it is a reflection of the times that we currently live in,” said Rabbi Sam Spector, the leader of the congregation, in his opening remarks at the training.

The number of anti-Semitic incidents across the United States as a whole rose 57 percent in 2017, according to an audit by the Anti-Defamation League, the largest single-year increase on record and the second highest number since the league started tracking such data in 1979. The ADL also highlighted an increase in anti-Semitic abuse and harassment on social media in an October report.

According to FBI data from 2016, the last year for which figures are available, 54.4 percent of victims of anti-religious hate crimes were Jewish.

The Pittsburgh shooting was a wake-up call for many Jewish congregations across the country, said Michael Masters, national director and chief executive officer for the Secure Community Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to homeland security initiatives to ensure the safety of Jewish institutions and communities across the United States.

“One of the greatest obstacles to the security of Jewish institutions is the belief that an event cannot happen or will not happen in our own community,” Masters said. “Pittsburgh showed many people that these events can happen in our own institutions, that that reality is not unimaginable.”

That consciousness spurred Jewish congregations across the country to take action, he said. The Secure Community Network has seen a surge in requests for security assessments and active shooter trainings — receiving hundreds of calls each day in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, said Masters.

Masters said the goal of these trainings is to empower Jewish communities with information.

“We can’t allow people to feel so afraid and paralyzed that they will not go to synagogue on the Jewish High Holidays, that they will not send their kids to Hebrew school or to Jewish day camp,” said Masters. “Because if we get to that point, we will lose our sense of community and ultimately the traditions and values that have defined our people for the last 3,000 years.”

Rabbi Spector gave the active shooting training at Kol Ami a religious significance in his remarks, by reminding the congregation that the most important Jewish mitzvah, or commandment, is pikuach nefesh — to save a life.

“By being at this active shooter training, you are fulfilling a Jewish commandment by learning to save your own life or the life of someone else,” he said.

Preparedness — at a price

The training was led by two officers from the Utah Highway Patrol Training Division, who started off by showing the congregation a video of an interactive map which represented every active shooter event since 2000 with a small yellow dot.

By the end of the video, the map was covered in 250 yellow blotches, representing over 2,000 killed and wounded in active shooter incidents between 2000-2017, according to the FBI.

With the prevalence of active shooting events across America today, having a plan in place for a mass shooting event is just as important as a fire safety or earthquake evacuation plan, said UHP Sgt. Nick Bricker.

Preparing for such an event is first and foremost psychological, he said. It is important to condition one’s mindset to be prepared to quickly evaluate the best plan of action in the event of an active shooter.

By having a plan in place ahead of time, Bricker said people are less likely to panic and put themselves in an even more dangerous situation by freezing up, screaming or being too fearful to distract or ambush the intruder.

With Bricker’s help, congregants brainstormed about the best places to hide in the synagogue, and what tools could come in handy during such an event — such as purchasing door jams that would prevent the shooter from entering a room. One congregant even suggested a creative use of his tallit, his prayer shawl, to tie around a door handle to prevent someone from coming in.

Though the Pittsburgh shooting frightened congregants, it isn’t the first time that Kol Ami has been forced to think about proactive security measures, said Boaz Markowitz, the president of the synagogue.

In 2012, Macon Openshaw, a 22-year-old Salt Lake City man, fired three rounds from a handgun into the windows at Kol Ami while the building was unoccupied. He later admitted to shooting at the synagogue because of its religious identity, and was sentenced to five years in prison in 2014.

More recently, Congregation Kol Ami has also faced a series of threats. Back in June, Kol Ami received an email from someone threatening to desecrate the building and then blow it up on the Sabbath. Rabbi Spector has also received personal attacks, including someone creating a fake Instagram account under his name which spewed hateful rhetoric about Muslims, said Markowitz.

“Having been shot at before, and with the increase in anti-Semitic attacks directed at our community and across the country, it got us thinking about what we needed to do for our building,” said Markowitz.

That’s when Congregation Kol Ami’s security committee put forth the idea of stepped up security measures. In addition to hosting the active shooter training, the congregation decided to hire additional security guards to monitor the building.

But such a decision is a great financial burden on the community, said Markowitz. The off-duty Salt Lake police officers they hire as security guards cost between $25-$50 per hour, he said.

This year, the synagogue decided for the first time to add a $60 annual security fee to each member’s annual dues. But even with those additional funds, security still costs the synagogue tens of thousands of dollars per year and is one of the main contributors to the synagogue’s challenging financial position, said Rabbi Spector.

“We have a deficit, but security is not something we are willing to compromise on because we want to ensure the safety of our children and all the people who come through the doors of Kol Ami,” said Rabbi Spector. “That’s our priority.”

Even so, the need for enhanced security makes it difficult for Kol Ami to respond to other pressing financial needs, such as the building’s leaky roof, which is in need of $100,000 worth of repairs.

“The money that would have gone there is now being siphoned over for security,” he said.

Despite the need to prepare for the worst, Markowitz said he doesn’t feel that Salt Lake City is a hostile place to be Jewish, and is grateful for the support the synagogue has received from local and federal law enforcement.

“I do not feel that Utah is an anti-Semitic state,” said Markowitz. “I feel that state leadership and the police department are committed to us as a minority community.”

Light in times of darkness

More than just financial burden, enhanced security measures could come at another kind of cost — the sacrifice of the welcoming nature of Jewish institutions.

Rabbi Hara Person, chief strategy officer for the Central Conference of American Rabbis, said Jewish leaders across the country are grappling with this tension.

“There’s been a lot of conversation around how we create a welcoming inclusive environment while also keeping our communities safe,” she said.

Rabbi Spector is among those engaged in such a dialogue. Before he joined Kol Ami earlier this year, he said he worked at congregations in Los Angeles which he said resemble fortresses — surrounded by cameras and bullet-proof fences, and which subject all entrants to background checks and pat-down searches.

“It’s not the most welcoming atmosphere when we look at everyone who walks through our door for the first time with suspicion,” said Rabbi Spector. “It’s hard because being welcoming is our second priority, but being safe is our first. We have to find a way to do both.”

That tension may come to a head this Hanukkah season, as the synagogue strives to stay safe while opening their doors to the broader community in celebration of the festive holiday.

Rabbi Spector said despite the challenges, Hanukkah could not have come at a better time.

Hanukkah, which means “dedication,” celebrates the unlikely Jewish victory of the Maccabees over the Greek army, who were persecuting the Jews during the second century B.C.

When the Maccabees entered the Temple in Jerusalem to reclaim it from the Greeks, they found it desecrated — filled with pigs and idols. They also found only a single jar of oil, sufficient for only one day’s worth of light. But miraculously, it burned for not one, but eight days.

The holiday celebrates the purification and rededication of the Temple after the Greeks occupied it, their work illuminated by the miracle of the long-lasting oil. Today, Hanukkah reminds Jews to rededicate themselves to keeping alive the flame of Jewish religion and culture, said Rabbi Spector.

“With the lighting of the Hanukkah candles, we are the ones who create light in darkness,” he said. “One light can illuminate an entire room and illuminate an entire world. I challenge my community to each be that candle that brings light into the world and makes it a less dark place.”

Rabbi Spector’s message resonated with congregants at Kol Ami, such as Carolina Hazman, who attended the active shooter training with her husband.

Though the Pittsburgh shooting made her feel vulnerable, Hazman said it empowered her to take steps to protect her family and her community. Most of all, rather than hiding, she said the tragedy inspired her to more proudly and publicly express pride in her Jewish heritage.

“We’ll put a menorah in our window this year,” said Hazman. “It’s important to not retreat away from our Jewish identity when it is under attack.”
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Information from: Deseret News, http://www.deseretnews.com