Days after a gunman killed 11 worshipers and injured six others in a mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, the Temple Brith Sholom congregation in Erie was outnumbered at its first Sabbath service since the attack.
“We filled the entire sanctuary with people from all over the city, not just Jews,” said Jeff Pinski, Temple Brith Sholom parishioner and board member. “We were actually outnumbered by non-Jews, including civil servants. It was a show of solidarity that we all just hold dear.”
Also in attendance that day were members of the Erie Bureau of Police Special Weapons and Tactics Team.
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Within days of the Oct. 27, 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Temple Brith Sholom officials took action to make their temple more secure, said Pinski, who is also in charge of security.
Temple Brith Sholom, which has fewer than 100 members, now has armed security at all services in its synagogue, which shares a building with the Jefferson Educational Society at 32nd and State Streets in Erie. A number of other security measures have also been implemented, Pinski said.
“Unfortunately, that was something that had to happen after the Tree of Life situation,” he said.
Temple Brith Sholom is not the only one to review and address security at an Erie-area place of worship following the events of October 27, 2018. Churches of all faiths in the region have been taking a closer look at how to protect their facilities and those who come to prayer and have taken steps to improve security, partly with the help of government grants.
Shootings at places of worship are a worrying trend
The shooting of the tree of life – with that synagogue’s proximity to the Erie region – sparked a series of reappraisals for sites like Temple Anshe Hesed in Millcreek Township, its Rabbi Rob Morais said. In addition, there have been increasing anti-Semitic incidents and crimes across the country and around the world in recent years, he said.
The Anti-Defamation League reported in April that anti-Semitic incidents in the US hit an all-time high in 2021 with 2,717 incidents of assault, harassment and vandalism reported to the league. That was the highest number of incidents since the league began keeping records in 1979, according to a press release announcing the results.
According to the report, attacks on Jewish establishments, including synagogues, increased by 61% over the previous year.
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Morais said in response to the mounting incidents and in consultation with his partners Temple Anshe Hesed, which has a community of about 150 families, “has assessed and refocused our security to meet the current situation”.
Morais declined to go into the details of the synagogue’s security measures.
Capt. Carter Mook, a patrol officer for the Millcreek Township Police Department, said his department’s patrol officers had paid close attention to the temple during the hours of its services since the shooting at the Tree of Life.
The Erie Bureau of Police and the Pennsylvania State Police do not offer regular enhanced patrols around places of worship in the city and surrounding areas, but will do so if alerted or requested to do so by an incident, officials from both agencies said.
The Catholic Diocese of Erie allows parishes to create security plans
The Catholic Diocese of Erie began looking more deeply into the issue of security a few years ago, its chancellor, the Rev. Christopher Singer, said. He said talks had been held between the diocesan Council of Priests, representatives of Catholic schools and diocesan offices in Erie.
“What we decided at that point in terms of communities was basically that communities are free to work alone or with neighboring communities if they want to put together specific plans,” Singer said.
Noting that the diocese, which has 13 districts, is diverse, Singer said concerns varied widely among its regions.
“It made more sense for communities to work at the regional level, and many have done so,” he said. “Often they’ve worked with their own community members involved in public safety, law enforcement, maybe retired law enforcement, and they’re looking at their facilities, doors and exits and coming up with their own plan.”
One Catholic church committed to safety is All Saints Parish in Waterford. Their pastor, Rev. Gregory Passauer, said the congregation created a safety council that developed contingency plans for the church and, in consultation with the ward council and the church finance committee, researched and made safety improvements to the facility.
For example, the church modernized the building’s doors and security system and gave walkie-talkies to its religion teacher, Passauer said.
Report 2019:Keep sacred spaces safe
How do they pay for protection?
Adding security to Temple Brith Shalom comes at a cost, Pinski said. What helped, he said, was a significant donation from Erie’s Jewish community council.
Helping Temple Anshe Hesed with its security upgrades was a $20,498 grant it received in 2021 through the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency’s Nonprofit Security Grant Fund.
The grant program was established to provide funding to nonprofit organizations primarily serving individuals, groups, or institutions who fall within a bias motivational category for prejudice hate crimes, as determined by the FBI’s hate crime statistics, according to information released by the state in April, when Gov. Tom Wolf announced the latest grant recipients. According to the press release, the categories include race/ethnicity/origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, gender and gender identity.
Multi-Cultural Health Evaluation Delivery Systems, Inc., which provides health care to Erie’s multicultural community, received $23,316 in the first year of the 2020 grant program. In 2021, grant funding went to the Islamic Association of Erie ($24,955), Urban Erie Community Development Corp. ($21,125) and to Temple Anshe Hesed, according to PCCD.
“We are very grateful to the state for providing us with much-needed funds,” Morais said. “These things are not budgeted and so it was very much appreciated and needed and allowed us to implement measures that make us safe and comfortable for people to come and be with us.”
This year’s Erie County scholarship recipients are St. Jude the Apostle Church, $47,707; and Bosnian Islamic Community Erie Inc., $25,000.
Bosnian Islamic Community officials requested funding to make their facility on West 21st Street in Erie more secure, including improved cameras, said Nurija Cibralik, chief executive officer. He said the community had not experienced any hate crimes, but that their building had been vandalized and broken into.
St. Jude officials will use the money to purchase safety planning, equipment, training, technology and other improvements to improve the facility’s security, State Assemblyman Ryan Bizzarro of Millcreek Township, D-3rd Dist., said in the announcement of receiving the scholarship in April.
“We must ensure the safety of everyone who works, prays or attends any of the religious places of worship in our area,” Bizzarro said in a press release.
St. Jude’s vicar, Rev. Ross Miceli, said the church has upgraded its security door systems and security cameras, and is also buying automated external defibrillators and trauma kits.
Panel discussion on security planned
St. Jude will also host an interfaith panel entitled “Protection of the Holy” on November 16 from 7:00-8:30 p.m. at the church at 2801 W. Sixth St. was formed to bring other communities together for discussion because everyone “has similar opportunities and challenges in everything that’s happening,” Miceli said.
The programme, which is open to the public, is intended to be “a kind of spiritual talk” but also a practical talk, he said.
“How do we welcome people into our communities in an age of fear and worry and the very real fact that people harm other people, but a church is a place of healing?” said Miceli.
Temple Brith Shalom’s Jeff Pinski said his community is grateful for the Erie Jewish Community Council’s support in stepping up security. The Temple, he said, is no different than any other place in the country, any other church, no matter what branch of Judaism.
“We don’t want it to be the new norm, but it’s what we have to do,” he said.
Contact Tim Hahn at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ETNhahn.