ADL, police stress security challenges for houses of worship

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Jed Filler admitted it wasn’t the most comfortable conversation. But in the wake of the deadly shooting at a South Carolina church in June, it wasn’t one that could be ignored either.

“It’s complicated because on the one hand, it is not easy to think about these things but on the other hand, it is critically important to think about these things,” said Filler, director of youth education at Temple Israel.

TI was one of several synagogues that sent representatives to “Securing Houses of Worship: Strategies for Protecting Your Institution,” an all-day seminar hosted Monday in Clayton by the Anti-Defamation League and funded by the Jewish Federation. 

St. Louis County Police were on hand to facilitate the event, which involved PowerPoint and video presentations along with lectures from officers on the importance of preparedness. Topics explored included security assessments, crisis communications, response to incidents of bias and a special three-hour session on how to handle an active shooter.

New Mt. Sinai Cemetery advertisement

Karen Aroesty, regional director of the ADL for Missouri and Southern Illinois, said that attendees included individuals from seven area synagogues, six churches and five mosques. She noted that in some ways, these kinds of issues have long been familiar to Jewish institutions but have recently become of interest to other houses of worship after the violence in Charleston. Nine people were gunned down at an African Methodist Episcopal Church there in early summer.

“We’ve been touting security for decades. We’re not the experts but we can bring in the experts,” she said. “What we are is nudges. We can nudge people into being much more intentional about this.”

Adil Imdad, a representative from the West Pine Mosque, said Muslims have increasingly had to become aware of such issues since the opening of the 21st century.

“Just like Jewish people went through a lot of trouble in this country when they came, a lot of discrimination, we are now facing the same thing, ever since 9/11 happened especially,” said Impad, who noted that Muslim women have sometimes faced harassment for wearing a hijab while Muslim men have sometimes heard complaints about their beards.

“We came to learn the different ways how we can protect our houses of worship and the people who come to worship,” he said. “We want to learn and implement the recommendations of the police officers and the recommendations of the detectives so everyone is safe.”

That can be a difficult task, since part of the mission of religious institutions is to open their doors to all. In Charleston, the shooter was welcomed into a Bible study by congregants. In fact, he was reportedly given a spot next to Pastor Clementa C. Pinckney, a kind gesture that would ultimately cost the clergyman his life.

“I think that like any faith-based organization we want to balance between being welcoming and making sure that everyone is safe in our institution,” said Ruth Schachter, a participant in Monday’s seminar. “We want to know the best ways to balance both.”

Schachter said that worries over security have always existed but were simply more heightened after the tragedy.

“There is always the concern,” she said. “Certainly, with the incidents that have happened more recently we want to be more alert to our surroundings and who is in our space while still making sure it is an open space for people.”

Leslie Heberlie, director of communications and administration for the Interfaith Partnership of Greater St. Louis, which was a partner in presenting the event, called it a “threat that has always been in the back of our heads.”

“We talk about welcoming the stranger, making sure that immigrants feel at home and newcomers feel at home in congregations,” she noted. “How can we reconcile that with feelings of safety and security?”

Aroesty said organizations can take steps to be proactive in such matters. She said that houses of worship should have security committees in place along with a subcommittee specially designated for communications.

She also said it is important to formalize relationships with local law enforcement and keep in touch about issues of concern. That’s also good advice when dealing with nearby faith-based institutions in the neighborhood.

“One of the ideas I learned today is that whenever you are having a service, it is a good idea to have someone outside greeting the people and making a quick assessment,” said attendee Al Rudolph, director of security for the Archdiocese of St. Louis. “Maybe it is somebody that you don’t recognize. You could approach them and ask if they have been to the church before.”

David Weber, synagogue administrator for Kol Rinah in University City, said his congregation had experienced an incident involving a threat but could not elaborate further. He said that he was satisfied with police response on the matter and that the authorities eventually apprehended the individual.

“What I’ve learned is that you have to build a relationship with your local law enforcement,” he said. “There is no question about that.”

He also felt communication with congregants and transparency during incidents was most important. “You have to respond and you have to respond honestly,” he said.