Pittsburgh Massacre Needs to Be a Wake-Up Call (to Arms) for Jews
In 2009, I was one of two finalists for the executive director position at the Jewish Federation of San Diego County, and they invited me there for a day of meetings. When I first entered their main offices, I noticed something that disturbed me: there was no guard. I don’t mean that there wasn’t an armed guard — there was no guard at all.
I asked them why they had no security, a question that some didn’t seem to appreciate. One person responded: “We’re not Seattle!” — referring to the 2006 shooting at the Jewish Federation in that city. I was taken aback by that comment. It was as if this person thought that those who want to murder Jews are congregated in a particular area. I reminded them about the 1999 shooting at the North Valley Jewish Community Center, which my own children attended, but the discussion at that point was moot. They had their position on the topic, and the interview quickly went downhill from there.
Fast forward to last summer. My wife and I wanted to send our son to a Jewish summer camp, and we asked if they had an armed guard. They didn’t. The camp director said that security at the camp was his “number one priority.” He then proceeded to claim that studies show that it is preferable not to have armed guards, and the Jewish Federation had a security initiative that recommended that camp guards not be armed. (Interestingly enough, Jewish Federation offices in all major cities seem to have armed guards.)
This brings me to the Etz Chaim (Tree of Life) synagogue in Pittsburgh, where a shooter entered the synagogue and murdered 11 Jews and wounded six more while they were praying. They had no guards, either.
I was irate.
In the early shadow of this horrific tragedy, it is hard to write about this, but when is the right time? Many thought Seattle would be a wake-up call. And many thought the Jewish Center shooting would be a wake-up call. Now, many people again believe that there will be change. I don’t.
There will be a temporary change, for a few weeks. Just like after every other high-alert situation, shuls and synagogues across the country will be vigilant for a while. But after a time, as has occurred for decades, everything will dissipate and return to “normal.”
The problem is that many Jews don’t understand that this is the new normal: There are people among us who are determined to murder us simply because we are Jews. There is a famous quote, possibly apocryphal, that when asked why he robbed banks, a criminal replied: “That’s where the money is.” Similarly, any person bent on murdering Jews will target a synagogue, temple, or shul, because that’s where the Jews are.
All day long, people take precautions against risks — from wearing seat belts to locking house doors to purchasing fire insurance — without ever debating the odds of something happening. The odds of a man walking into any particular Jewish house of worship in the United States to murder Jews are extremely low. And so, people have treated it as an odds game: “It will never happen to us.”
Of course, simply having an armed guard does not guarantee absolute safety, but it dramatically improves the odds. Most of the shooters are cowards who don’t want to have anything hindering their goal of slaughtering innocent people. If one place has an armed presence, chances are that the murderers will go to another. That is exactly what happened at the North Valley Jewish Community Center shooting: The shooter first went to other locations, but changed his mind when he saw heavy security.
A synagogue that I know in Atlanta has two armed guards, and many of the congregants are also “packing.” If a shooter came there, the ending would have been different than what happened in Pittsburgh.
Many years ago, in Los Angeles, I attended a joint conference of Israeli and US generals. During the conference, something happened and the building’s fire alarm went off. The conference coordinators worked diligently to fix the problem while everyone sat patiently. After about five minutes, they stopped the alarm and the generals continued speaking.
Later, during the question and answer session, someone asked the Israeli general if the US was getting closer to Israel in terms of security vigilance. The Israeli general responded: “When Americans hear a fire alarm and begin running for the exits, then they will be getting closer to Israel.”
US Jews have been hearing the fire alarms for decades. Unfortunately, they are still sitting through them, even when they are loud and real.