Will you feel safe going to synagogue this New Year?
The High Holidays bring a special dilemma to American congregations. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur attract more Jews to synagogue -- and more attention to American Jews in general -- than at any other time of year.
The very prominence of this intensive Jewish season raises significant security concerns for clergy and lay leaders responsible for the safety of their members and guests. Yet the New Year is the single best opportunity to engage and welcome both new and returning members of the congregation.
Can synagogues protect and serve?
For 10 years, Synagogue 2000, a transdenominational project to envision the synagogue of the 21st century, worked with some 100 synagogues across America to re-imagine congregations as sacred, welcoming communities. Beginning this year, Synagogue 3000, its successor, is making that vision of an open tent available to every Jewish spiritual community in the country.
But at a time when virtually all the synagogues in North America have had to install some level of security screening at their front doors, is this welcoming vision realistic, let alone responsible?
We believe that the creation of a welcoming ambience is not only responsible; it is the surest way to keep our communities safe. Remember the origin of the handshake: mutual prevention of violence. Two hands grasping one another cannot wield a sword or a rock.
The reality is that a truly inviting community can be a truly secure community. The question is: how to balance the imperative for hachnasat orchim, the welcoming of guests, with the imperative to protect against strangers who threaten to disrupt these Days of Awe?
These concerns are real. Here in Los Angeles, for example, recent threats against Jewish institutions have made synagogues into high-profile potential targets. The Anti-Defamation League's September briefing for congregational leaders was at once sobering and reassuring. While we live in an uncertain environment, attendees were told, nevertheless we have the resources and the support to keep our communities as safe as possible.
Still, synagogue leaders were told, "Harden the target."
So, we have erected guard houses, installed scanners and hired uniformed personnel to check our IDs, search our tallit bags and take our tickets. Running the gauntlet of security is not exactly the kind of "welcome" anyone has in mind.
The very barriers that guard our gates can discourage those taking new and tentative steps toward affiliated synagogue life. What good is praying for the gates of heaven to open, when the gates of the shul are shut?
Consider the steps that many police departments recommend to reduce institutional vulnerability: get involved in your surrounding community, get to know your neighbor and get to know your members. Would that most synagogues knew all of their members.
Let's be honest. On the High Holidays, we see not only new faces, but also those of the many members who rarely come around during the rest of the year. Nevertheless, a synagogue that installs greeters just outside the security perimeter who offer a smile and a warm "Gut yontif" or "Happy New Year" can create an initial impression of welcome. A follow-up qualifying question to a newcomer can express genuine interest, such as, "Who recommended us to you?" or "What's your favorite part of the New Year service?"
In Southern California, three of the five most recent hate crimes and terrorist incidents against Jews involved individuals with weapons searching for targets of opportunity. We learn from prison interviews with convicted perpetrators that a synagogue with people greeting one another at the front gate, on the front steps and at the front door is not a target of opportunity. A synagogue whose members care enough to greet one another is a synagogue whose members are its first and most important line of defense against the unusual, the people or vehicles that don't look quite right, the potential threat.
Savvy synagogue leaders have turned this obstacle into an opportunity. The best congregations have trained their security personnel in the art of greeting. You don't have to be fluent in Hebrew or even be Jewish to say, "Shanah tovah." Others deploy volunteers to mitigate delays and other inconveniences caused by security checks.
On Rosh Hashanah 2001, just days after Sept. 11, the Synagogue 2000 team at Temple Israel of Hollywood knew that their congregants would be forced to wait on a sidewalk for up to 15 minutes to go through security screening. They organized a crew of volunteers to "work the line," offering trays laden with apples and honey to welcome the people to their congregation. Other volunteers brought guitars to pass the time with song.
Ultimately, all members of a sacred community have the responsibility of creating a culture of welcome and safety. Whom does a visitor or a congregant meet when entering a synagogue? A parking attendant, a security person, the custodian, the gift shop volunteer, the front office receptionist, the staff secretaries, the kitchen crew, the caterer, the school office assistant, the religious school teachers, the executive director, the cantor, the rabbi -- every one of these people represents the congregation. Every one has the potential to make each interaction with members and guests a positive experience -- or not. Everyone must greet and guard.
Perhaps the best way to harden the target is to soften our hearts. All it takes is a smile and a handshake.
Ron Wolfson is president and Shawn Landres is director of research at Synagogue 3000 (www.synagogue3000.org).