September 23, 1999
Jewish educators and parents balance security concerns with the desire for free and open schools
On the first day of school, when Barbara Gindi escorted her children to Maimonides Academy, she was appalled by what she saw: Two security guards stood out front, a Sheriff's squad car was parked at the curb, and the administrative staff was on high alert.
"It brought tears to my eyes," Gindi says. "Is this what our world is coming to?"
The heightened security at Maimonides was one response to Buford O. Furrow's Aug. 10 shooting attack at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills. Five people were wounded, including three preschoolers.
Gindi takes the changes at Maimonides in stride. She accepts the need for a security camera in the front office and the fact that preschoolers can no longer walk over to the school library. She also understands the cancellation of the annual trip to the beach to perform the Tashlich ritual.
"Unfortunately," says Gindi, "these are the new realities. You don't know who the enemy is."
Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy has also instituted new safety regulations with the beginning of the fall semester. When the school day ends, youngsters must wait for their rides in the yard, not on the sidewalk, as they used to do. Older children are no longer free to walk home, unless they have a note from their parents. And the school has hired its first full-time security guard. He is uniformed but unarmed -- to the dismay of one mother who argued strongly at a back-to-school parents meeting that a guard without a weapon could not sufficiently protect her children.
Heschel Day School in Northridge takes pride in being prepared for emergencies. In 1994, the campus survived the Northridge earthquake with little damage. Now, in the wake of nearby JCC shooting, it is beefing up an already tight security system: New additions will include an electronic gate and a videocamera to be posted at the entry to the school parking lot; one campus wall will be made higher; and, following discussions with security experts, the school's board has just voted to hire an armed guard.
School director Shirley Levine insists that Heschel does not take such steps lightly. The new guard will be an off-duty police officer, and his weapon will not be visible. Still, Levine acknowledges the impossibility of keeping her school totally safe from intruders: "Even if you spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, they can get in if they want to," she says.
Jewish day schools and preschools across Los Angeles are working hard to make parents feel secure about their children's safety. Many schools now require that cars be identified with special stickers, and that all visitors be screened by a receptionist.
At Temple Emanuel Day School, where entrance doors are now locked at the start of the school day, latecomers must be escorted by their parents through a security checkpoint. Fourth-grade teacher Gloria Kirschenbaum believes this policy can serve a dual purpose.
"We hope with all the inconvenience, it will discourage tardiness."
The changes are part of a national trend. Jewish communities from New York to San Francisco have reassessed and, in most cases, beefed up security precautions at schools and institutions as a response to a wave of anti-Semitic violence this past summer.
Besides the JCC shootings, three Sacramento-area synagogues were firebombed in June, and Orthodox Jews were shot outside their synagogue in a Chicago suburb in July.
Despite the heightened concern for security, there has been opposition to some of the new procedures. At Beth Am's Pressman Academy, a memo sent home at the start of the school year warned that "in order to keep hallways free of outsiders," parents of students above kindergarten age could no longer walk their children to the doors of their classrooms. Two weeks into the semester, the edict was largely being ignored.
It remains to be seen how many of the stricter measures adopted in September will still be in place come May 2000, when parents might be feeling more relaxed about sending their children to identifiably Jewish places of learning.
One mother who never takes school safety for granted is Jayne Shapiro, chairman of the Los Angeles Task Force for Safe Schools. She is a staunch believer in security measures, however costly. "What works, do it. What keeps the kids safe, do it," she says.
Shapiro's acceptance of the need for armed guards and costly security devices at school sites disturbs Rabbi Steven Jacobs of Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills. Jacobs is no Pollyanna: His congregation's preschool has changed its door-locking system and installed tinted windows so that passersby can't spy on the youngsters from the street. But he is strongly opposed to armed guards, and he dislikes the whole "bunker mentality" that views the whole world as out to get the Jews. In today's America, insists Jacobs, "I don't think that, by and large, we're as vulnerable as we are led to believe."
Shapiro, though, sees areas of vulnerability. When she passes Milken Community High School on the freeway, she feels ambivalent about the flag of Israel that flutters over the campus. "It frightens me," she says. "I don't think it should be hanging in front of an institution for kids. It's an easy target."
In response, Milken Head of School Dr. Rennie Wrubel says: "I really am honored to be the leader of an institution that flies the Israeli flag with pride. I'm also honored to be an American because I know that my dignity is preserved and protected as a Jew."
Though Milken has reassessed its security plans, the flag will stay. "I wouldn't want to be part of an institution that took down the flag because of some lunatic," she says. "I don't want to live in fear. My grandparents did that enough."
Jewish schools' new security procedures are chiefly designed to keep intruders at bay. Most day-school students themselves are reportedly unfazed by the safety concerns that haunt their parents. On the first day of the semester, Shalhevet High School's brand-new campus boasted a guard at the parking lot gate, and many security procedures were in the works. But students were flowing happily between the two campus buildings as they greeted their friends and chatted about the year ahead.
Says Beatrice Levavi, who's both a Shalhevet parent and the school administrative assistant, "Teen-agers have no sense of their own mortality."