PORTLAND, Ore. — As Rabbi Ken Brodkin watched the news trickle in from Sutherland Springs, Texas, in November 2017 — 26 killed and 20 wounded after a shooter opened fire during Sunday morning services, one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history — he felt a jolt of realization. Seeing a house of worship become a hunting ground for shooters in real-time told him everything was about to change.
Brodkin, 44, has been the rabbi at Congregation Kesser Israel, Oregon’s largest and longest-established Orthodox synagogue for 14 years. His congregations totals about 130 families in the Portland area, a sliver of the small Jewish population in Portland, where roughly 40,000 Jews live in a city of almost 650,000.
Brodkin’s always known the Jewish community is vulnerable to hate crimes — “anti-Semitism,” he says, “is an eternal force” — but that reality crystallized in fall 2018, when his congregation decided the best way to protect itself was to hire an armed guard to patrol the synagogue during weekend services.
His situation isn’t unique. As anti-Semitic attacks become more frequent across the country, Jewish leaders are grappling with how to straddle the line of creating open environments while keeping their congregation safe from hateful outsiders.
The challenges can be particularly steep for smaller communities, which often find themselves with fewer financial resources and isolated geographically. Paying for security measures like cameras, panic buttons, bulletproof glass, metal detectors or armed guards can add up quickly, and isn’t in every synagogue’s budget.
“It’s the million-dollar question,” Brodkin says. “We can’t allow the fact that there are crazy people in the world to stop us from our mission of building a welcoming community. Those things aren’t mutually exclusive — but the attention to detail has to be thorough.”
In recent weeks, Jewish people across the U.S. have come together to show support for their community. Shortly after a stabbing attack at a Hannukkah party last week in Monsy, New York, hundreds of Jews rallied in the streets, and hundreds of thousands are expected this Sunday at a march in New York City.
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Anti-Semitism is on the rise in the U.S. There were 780 anti-Semitic incidents — assaults, vandalism and harassment — in the first half of 2019, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
In contrast, in 2018 there were 775 in the first half of the year. The deadliest came in Pittsburgh in October 2018, when 11 people were murdered by a white supremacist gunman. During the Monsy attack on Dec. 29, a man stabbed five people with a machete at the home of a rabbi. That attack came shortly after two shooters killed four people at a Jersey City, New Jersey, kosher market earlier in December.
“Most congregations pride themselves on being a welcoming place, and none of us want to practice our religion inside a fortress,” says Aaron Ahlquist, 43, an Anti-Defamation League regional director based in New Orleans who oversees Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas.
Ahlquist works directly with smaller communities in his region to make sure they’re connecting with local law enforcement to discuss security procedures. His office also identifies and tracks hate groups and individuals who have “clearly expressed hate motives” toward the Jewish community.
“We’re reeling from all these attacks,” Ahlquist says. “And one of the realities is that for the Jewish community in particular, but really all faith communities, a passive approach to security is no longer an option.”
Most Jewish communities in the U.S. also work directly with the Secure Community Network, a national organization headquartered in Chicago. Staffed with law enforcement and homeland security experts, the Secure Community Network works with the FBI and Jewish leaders to identify potential threats and train communities on how to handle them, from helping them establish communication networks, to spreading news of potential threats, to practicing active shooter drills.
Michael Masters, 41, the CEO and national director, took over his position two years ago, shortly after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. After the neo-Nazi protests, when white nationalists marched through the streets chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” Masters spent time with Alan Zimmerman, president of Congregation Beth Israel, the only synagogue in Charlottesville, which serves more than 800 families in a city of about 48,000. The synagogue was a block away from the riot that killed one person.
“Alan described standing on the steps of the synagogue, looking across the street and seeing individuals with assault rifles, waving Nazi and Confederate flags and told me, ‘We felt so alone,’” Masters recalls.
“My response was, ‘Shame on us as a community if any Jew, anywhere in this country, feels alone.’”
One of the biggest realizations for Masters after Charlottesville was that “we needed to figure how to expand a security umbrella, particularly to those communities that have less resources.”
It’s not realistic, security experts say, for every congregation to spend money on “facility hardening” like cameras, bulletproof glass and metal detectors. Those measures become cost prohibitive very quickly. Instead, experts recommend and emphasize training and relationship building — with both local law enforcement and the synagogue’s neighbors.
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In Bozeman, Montana, Rabbi Chaim Bruk is the co-CEO of Chabad Lubavitch, a Hasidic Jewish community. He and his wife, Chavie, moved out West 13 years ago to open the first Orthodox synagogue in Montana in 100 years.
Bruk estimates that within a 50-mile radius of Bozeman, a Southern Montana city of just under 47,000 there are “800 households that have a Jew in them,” though the synagogue typically only sees 30 to 40 people at its weekly service. Within the congregation, members devised ways to communicate quickly with Bruk when someone unfamiliar enters the synagogue so he can let them know if they should worry. (Bruk declined to give details on their procedures for security purposes.)
Taking more drastic measures — like hiring an armed guard or installing metal detectors — would be a financial strain for the congregation, Bruk says, but he’s committed to “figuring out how to do right by our community if that’s what’s needed based on expert assessment.”
Bruk says it’s only recently that he’s started to look over his shoulder — and that hasn’t happened in Montana, a reliably red state known for its staunch support of the Second Amendment. It happened in his native Brooklyn in New York City when Bruk recently went back to visit family.
“There’s been something like 20 attacks just in Crown Heights, where I grew up,” he says of the Brooklyn neighborhood known for its active Jewish community. “The fact that I have to look over my shoulder in Brooklyn, what does that say about America in 2020?”
In Bozeman, Bruk says he and his family — he and Chavie have five children — feel welcome every day, and frequently interact with non-Jews at major events, like at their annual Menorah lighting, which has been attended in the past by both U.S. senators from Montana.
Within the walls of his synagogue, he wants both his congregants to feel safe and outsiders to feel welcome. “I don’t want to alienate them or have us turn into Europe,” he says, a sentiment felt by many within the Jewish community as Jews flee France and England in response to rising anti-Semitism.
Bruk says that as a student years ago, he had a five-hour layover in Barcelona, Spain, and decided to visit a synagogue to pray. Getting inside took a ridiculous amount of time, he says.
“We knock on the door and it’s, ‘Who are you? Do you have your passport to prove it? Why didn’t you call ahead of time?’” He recalls. “I don’t want my synagogue — or America — to turn into that.”
Bruk also rejects the idea because the Jewish community is under attack, it should back into the shadows. He said that in the face of anti-Semitism, Jews need to lean into their Jewishness even more, embracing their culture and faith — especially in smaller communities.
“The natural response would be to hide, to take off our yarmulkes and stop shopping in the kosher section of the grocery store,” he says. “But we’re not going to cower or run away. We’re going to continue celebrating, even if they’re going to make it a little harder.”
Almost 800 miles away in Portland, Brodkin echoes that sentiment. He points out that Jews all over the planet just concluded Hanukkah, a celebration that emphasizes bringing more light into the world.
“I still feel confident and hopeful,” Brodkin says. “The Jewish people have been here for 4,000 years — and we’ve already survived and thrived so many difficult things.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Anti-Semitism attacks increasing: Orthodox Jews vulnerable, resilient