St. Louis Jewish groups upping security after shul attack

Jewish+Federation%E2%80%99s+Community+Security+Director%2C+Scott+Biondo%2C+speaks+during+a+panel+discussion+on+%E2%80%98Keeping+Religious+Communities%C2%A0Safe%E2%80%99+at+Central+Reform+Congregation+on+Jan.+20.+The+event%2C+planned+by+Interfaith+Partnership+of+St.+Louis+and+CRC%2C+was+broadcast+via+Zoom.%C2%A0Photo%3A+Philip+Deitch

Jewish Federation’s Community Security Director, Scott Biondo, speaks during a panel discussion on ‘Keeping Religious Communities Safe’ at Central Reform Congregation on Jan. 20. The event, planned by Interfaith Partnership of St. Louis and CRC, was broadcast via Zoom. Photo: Philip Deitch

ERIC BERGER, Special to the Jewish Light

Rabbi Amy Feder of Congregation Temple Israel attended rabbinical school with Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and recalls him having a “nonanxious presence.”

So Feder wasn’t surprised to hear that Cytron-Walker remained calm while he and three others were held hostage by a gunman Jan. 15 at Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas. 

A few hours into the crisis, the gunman released one hostage. Four hours after that, Cytron-Walker threw a chair at the assailant, which allowed him and the two other remaining hostages to escape. He told CNN that he and the others are alive because of security training he and his congregation received from law enforcement, the Anti-Defamation League and the Secure Community Network, which secures Jewish institutions across the country.

More security

While Feder and other local rabbis also feel well prepared because they received similar security training, the Texas incident has prompted congregations to introduce or consider additional security measures, and rabbis to engage in soul-searching over whether, if faced with a similar threat, they would act as calmly as Cytron-Walker did. 

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“Every time I get on the bimah, I think about it,” Feder said of the pulpit at the Reform synagogue in Creve Coeur. “That’s sort of just the reality, that we are always aware of who is in our community and who is walking in the doors and who we need to be keeping an eye on. So even though this was a very stark reminder (of the risk Jewish institutions face), it’s not a new thing.”

In addition to the Colleyville attack, the American Jewish community has over the past decade faced several attacks that attracted international attention, including shootings at the Chabad of Poway in California; the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh; and at a kosher grocery store in New Jersey. The World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency recently released their annual Antisemitism Report, which declared 2021 the worst year for antisemitism in a decade.

More investment

The attacks and increased concerns about antisemitism have prompted Jewish organizations to invest additional money in security. In 2017, Jewish Federation of St. Louis hired Scott Biondo as community security director on a part-time, interim basis. He now works full-time for the organization, which also allocated $350,000 in December 2019 to enhance security at local Jewish facilities.

Biondo said he thinks Cytron-Walker received the same training as St. Louis rabbis — and that it worked. The rabbi remained close to an exit, which provided him with options, and tried to deescalate the situation by continuing to talk with the attacker.

“The options-based training that we use provides the person with the ability to evaluate the threat based on the proximity to them and then [determine] what option makes the most sense,” Biondo said. 

Rabbi Ze’ev Smason of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion, an Orthodox congregation in Olivette, said Federation helped the synagogue by providing funding to improve security at the building and by making Biondo available for training and to answer questions. 

That has “given us a much greater feeling of security and confidence, although ultimately one can never be too secure, nor should one ever let one’s guard down,” Smason said. “I am filled with admiration from the way that [Cytron-Walker] responded.”

More training

Feder said that at a Jan. 25 Temple Israel board meeting, the head of the security committee discussed the state of the congregation’s safety measures and “really just reminded us that we are in pretty good shape. We feel that we have spent the time and money and resources to do everything we can.”


Despite the confidence that the local rabbis feel because of the training and security upgrades in recent years, they are still trying to bolster their systems. Five Jewish organizations are scheduling security training, Biondo said. 

At the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association meeting Jan. 25, members decided to seek training that is specific to clergy.

Since the Colleyville incident, Central Reform Congregation has added security officers to work during drop-off and pickup for the congregation’s preschool and is considering whether it needs to have safety drills during the synagogue’s religious school on Shabbat, Rabbi Daniel Bogard said.

Changing times

“The Jewish world that we grew up in, that I grew up in in St. Louis, certainly no longer exists when it comes to antisemitism,” Bogard said. “I think we need to have some really strategic conversations about how we respond to this new reality. … What are the proactive things that we could be doing?”

Since the Colleyville incident, Kol Rinah has provided the Clayton Police Department with a floor plan for its new building to help law enforcement should the Conservative congregation find itself in a similar situation.

Rabbi Noah Arnow of Kol Rinah said the recent terrorism “doesn’t make me more nervous but, of course, it’s made me think about whether I would have been able to do what Rabbi Cytron-Walker did if I were in his place. I can’t imagine anyone acting with more kindness and patience and heroism than he did. I hope I would do half as well.”

Covid-19

While the local rabbis said they don’t think the attacks in recent years have kept people from coming to synagogue, many people have stopped coming to synagogue because of another threat: COVID-19. 

NHBZ is open for services but requires all attendees to wear masks. The synagogue has a quarter to a third as many attendees as it did before the pandemic, Smason said. 

“There are people who are scared and understandably so,” Smason said.

But with regard to the threat posed by terrorism, Smason said that in addition to taking security precautions, the best thing the Jewish community can do is to come to synagogue more often. 

“Our response to hate and antisemitism is: You’re not going to beat us. You’re not going to beat us,” Smason said. “And on the contrary, whenever something like this happens, we are going to respond by strengthening our commitment to Judaism and our participation in Jewish communal life.”