U.S. synagogues are increasing security measures following the Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel by the Islamic militant group Hamas.
The assault involved members of the group flooding into Israel by air, sea, and land and resulted in the deaths of at least 1,400 Israelis. At least 3,400 others were injured.
Shortly after the attacks, demonstrations took place across the world. Some were located within the U.S. and not only showed support for Palestinians, who protestors say have been living under a blockade, but some protestors supported the deadly attack itself.
Crowds cheering on the slaughter of innocent Israeli men, women, and children have renewed fears over the possibility of violence not just in the Middle East, but also against Jewish Americans.
Harvey Friedrich, Executive Director at Beth Shalom Congregation in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania says that since the Oct. 7 attack, his synagogue has received one threat, but it was deemed to be not credible.
He told Timcast News during an interview that other synagogues have received threats and that there is an ongoing, multi-agency investigation into those threats.
Beth Shalom, as well as other synagogues he knows, have stepped up security, though he would not elaborate on specifics.
Friedrich says the synagogue’s security committee is aware of and is evaluating recent warnings from U.S. officials cautioning that Middle Eastern terrorists affiliated with Hamas and Hezbollah could be coming across the U.S. southern border.
“We do have security guards who are working here during all of our opening hours,” Freidrich said. “So we think our congregation is protected. But, nonetheless, we need to be very vigilant.”
A representative for a synagogue in Phoenix, which is about a three-hour drive north of the U.S-Mexico border in Arizona, said they too have increased security measures. The person declined to provide any additional information about improved security, specific threats, or other related matters.
New York City, the scene of recent pro-Palestine demonstrations that resulted in the arrests of more than 100 people, is home to many synagogues, a number of which are taking steps in response to the recent attack.
Deborah Koenigsberger Gutierrez, President of the Tribeca Synagogue, says they have now moved to a locked-door policy. Previously, the iconic building, formerly known as the “Synagogue for the Arts,” was open to the public so that tourists and architects from around the world could go in and take photos. People were also invited to show up and pray, even if they were not a part of the community.
The new policy has a negative impact on visitations, as would-be patrons must now ring a bell or phone the office to be granted entry. “We’re not getting as much traction as we did before,” Gutierrez told Timcast News.
She added that the synagogue is also making a larger investment into security.
“When we have a bigger event, or Shabbat, we do have armed guards. And we are working with the NYPD and [anti-terrorism authorities] to always have a presence outside of the synagogues for the times of our services so people know that they are protected,” she added.
Timcast News spoke with a rabbi at a synagogue in Pennsylvania who said they have received a bomb threat since the deadly attack Hamas committed against Israel on Oct. 7, but it wasn’t the first. Prior to the attack, they had received at least two separate threats made via e-mail.
Part of the challenge in dealing with threats is to “try to figure out what would be considered a verifiable threat versus that threat that would be intended to just create anxiety and emotional harm, rather than actual physical harm,” said the rabbi, who spoke under the condition that neither he nor his synagogue be identified.
While there has not been an increase in threats, there is more anxiety among the local community “given the overall considerable increase in antisemitism,” he said.
According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), there has been a spike in the percentage of antisemitic incidents across the world, including 76 in Austria, 588 in France, 218 in the United Kingdom, and a 240 increase in Germany.
The ADL says that within the U.S. there has been a 21 percent increase, citing as an example from a top lawyer in Illinois’ state government, who reportedly told a Jewish person, “Hitler should have eradicated all of you.”
Rabbi Shai Cherry, who leads the Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania told Timcast News that since the Hamas attack against Israel there have been “zero” threats against the synagogue, but there is a heightened sense of anxiety among both Jews and Muslims.
Cherry is one of a few taking a more nuanced view of the conflict and recognizing the complexities that are often missing from public discourse.
“There was a six-year-old Muslim kid in Chicago who was knifed and there was a synagogue president who was knifed and stabbed to death. So, you’ve got folks in America who [are] arguing some kind of simplistic and vile calculation, that somebody is to blame and their co-religionists are equally to blame over here and ‘We’re gonna take the war to the United States,’” he explained.
“So, you know, there’s suffering on both sides and there’s anxiety on both sides. So, I think when you’re talking about human emotions, you know, what is sometimes called moral equivalency is necessary to make,” he continued. “I think the idea of moral equivalency in terms of Hamas’ terrorist acts and Israel’s response, that’s where it’s illegitimate to compare acts. But everybody’s suffering and everybody’s anxious.”
Many of the protestors who have taken to the streets following the Oct. 7 attack have been marching in support of protecting innocent Palestinians who had no participation in the Hamas attack and could suffer in the event of an overreaction by Israeli officials.
So far, there has been a disproportionate response. Since the attack, as noted by UPI, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have killed at least 4,651 Palestinians in retaliation for the Hamas strike, a figure which includes the deaths of 1,871 children, 1,023 women, and 187 elderly people. More than 14,245 have been injured.
UPI reported that United Nations data show that prior to the Hamas offensive, Israeli forces killed 227 Palestinians this year, while just 29 Israelis had been killed by Palestinian attackers.
Cherry acknowledged that the response was disproportionate, but added only “in the colloquial sense, but not in the legal sense.”
In further explaining, he said in a legal setting Israel’s response must be disproportionate “because Israel can’t tolerate the existence of a terrorist organization that’s dedicated to its destruction.”
He added, “You know, 1,400 Israelis were killed. So, I don’t know what a proportional response would be. But Hamas — as an organization, as a government — needs to be completely decimated. And that’s not disproportionate in the legal sense, although it might be disproportionate in the common usage.”
Despite still reeling from the tragedy unfolding in the Middle East, which has touched families in the U.S. who have loved ones impacted, Jewish Americans remain optimistic about the future.
“The Israeli national anthem is called Hope — Hatikvah, The Hope,” Cherry said. “And my teacher’s teacher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, said that the cardinal sin of Judaism is despair.”
Another member of the synagogue who asked not to be identified told Timcast News, “As difficult as things are, we have to look for joy. We have to continue to be positive, and people are talking about that as well.”
Gutierrez, of the Tribeca Synagogue, says, “I think education is the key for peace,” before tapping into the historic traditions of her faith as a source for inspiration.
“Right now, we’re about to celebrate Hanukkah in December, and what are we celebrating in Hanukkah? They wanted to destroy our temple, destroy our people. But we persevered,” she said. “So, we’ve got to persevere. And I always like finishing my speeches with ‘Let’s keep contributing to the unbroken chain of Jewish lives, Jewish traditions and Jewish family.’”