Congregations are vigilant as High Holidays approach

By Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

Karen Aroesty has been thinking a lot about security at synagogues for the new year, which begins Wednesday, Sept. 24, with Erev Rosh Hashanah.

In part, thats her job as regional director for the Anti-Defamation League of Missouri and Southern Illinois: to remind everyone in the Jewish community to be aware and alert.

Aroesty also is concerned that congregations, many with declining attendance that may attract the unaffiliated who normally dont attend services, want to show that they will turn no one away during the High Holy Days. In so doing, they may not be as vigilant as they should be.

“This puzzles me,” Aroesty said.”Not only are congregations going ticketless but they don’t have RSVPs.”

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This is a time when congregations should be especially watchful, she said, in light of recent events that threatened  Jewish congregations and groups, among them an attack in Overland Park, Kan., that left three people dead; the killing of four people in Brussels; Holocaust-denial leafleting; and an increase in anti-Semitic rhetoric after the war in Gaza.

Just because youre questioning doesnt mean you’re not warm and welcoming,” Aroesty said. I think congregations should be prepared for [the worst] and be happy if they don’t need to do anything.”

Her advice to everyone attending services this new year: If you see something out of place or suspicious, say something. Look for ushers and greeters who should know what to do to take care of any issue or person who may seem threatening.

“Part of making people feel safe and having security is also part of being warm and welcoming, Aroesty said.

In fact, congregational leaders have been putting a lot of time into planning for this years services. Like most thorough planning, those who benefit from it may not be aware of the effort that rabbis, staff and leaders have put into making their places of worship welcoming and secure.

Most congregations contacted by the Jewish Light say they have in place ways to be open to nonmembers while welcoming longtime members who are current on their dues and expect to find good seats.

Some have ushers who are board members. They are expected to know members as they enter the sanctuary. Others send out tickets to members while also allowing nonmembers to sit in unclaimed seats. 

Every congregation contacted emphasized that its leaders have contacted local police departments, which provide officers in uniform and a police car parked in a place that is visible to all who approach the building.

Police Capt. Mike Ransom of University City, which has a concentration of congregations, said off-duty officers work in uniform to provide security. In addition, police will have extra patrols for people walking to and from services. 

At Temple Emanuel, a Reform congregation in Creve Coeur, executive director Gail Armstrong said all members are given name tags. Board members in the congregation of 225-member units become greeters.

Visitors are asked to sign a register. St. Louis County Police Department officers will be present for all services. 

It’s business as usual, Armstrong said. Were small. Everybody pretty much knows everyone.”

At another small shul, Young Israel in University City, which has about 150 families, board president Max Gornish said the modern Orthodox congregation has assigned seats for the 300 to 400 people expected to attend this year.

We will be paying close attention,” Gornish said. “We live in a world today where we have to be more vigilant and aware of our surroundings.”

Central Reform Congregation, as in years past, will hold services at the Chase Park Plaza Hotel, with parallel services at the nearby temple in the Central West End.

For those who cannot or choose not to attend, the services will be streamed over the Internet, said Nancy Weigley, executive director of the congregation of 760 families.

Everyone is welcome at our services, Weigley said. We will have security at all of our entrances. We use police officers in uniform. We will probably have people in plainclothes, too.”

At United Hebrew, a Reform congregation in Chesterfield, members will have tickets. 

“If they dont have tickets, they sign in, said Bob Gummers, executive director. That’s so we know whos here. Its a long-standing practice.”

Gummers added: “We have a very good relationship with the Chesterfield police.

At Kol Rinah, a new Conservative congregation in University City formed by the merger of Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel (BSKI) and Shaare Zedek, synagogue administrator David Weber said members names will be checked off as they enter the building. 

Security is a very big concern, Weber said. Any Jewish organization would be silly not to take precautions.”

At Beth Jacob in the university city of Carbondale, seating is open, as it has been for many years.

While the doors are open to students, faculty and staff of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, newcomers are easy to spot, said Sara Faye Marten, president of the sisterhood.

Thats the advantage of a small community, she said. About 100 worshippers are expected at Beth Jacob services.

“Since the war between Israel and Hamas, we have been advised to consider extra support for security, Marten said. Its a certain caution that we hold. We are very aware of where we are located.”

At St. Louis Hillel at Washington University, director Jacqueline Ulin Levey said services will be held on campus under the watchful eyes of campus police. 

Each service will be monitored by greeters and Hillel staff members, she said.

“It’s really a catch-22, Levey said. We want to be open to all students, but we have to provide security. I went to a bat mitzvah at a large shul in Manhattan recently. Everyone had to go through a metal detector. Once you get inside, you feel safe. But at the same time, you know you are in a different time.”