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A tiny Jewish congregation grapples with security issue

Being Jewish in rural southwest Virginia takes work and dedication. Here in Blacksburg, where I've lived for...

Posted: Oct 31, 2018 7:40 PM
Updated: Oct 31, 2018 7:40 PM

Being Jewish in rural southwest Virginia takes work and dedication. Here in Blacksburg, where I've lived for 12 years, we have a tiny layperson-led Jewish community center that functions as a synagogue and religious school.

Our building is on Church Street, surrounded by five different churches. Like parents in many other places across the country, every Sunday I walk my sons to religious school, past the regular churchgoers streaming into or out of morning services at Blacksburg United Methodist and Christ Episcopal, past the casually dressed ushers outside the River Church.

2018 Pittsburgh synagogue attack

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We run entirely on the energy of volunteers, and with about 100 members -- no one is exempt from pitching in. We have no rabbi or cantor -- I will be training my oldest son for his bar mitzvah. We have no mohel -- most people have their obstetrician do the circumcision, and I've written and officiated baby naming ceremonies over the years, including my youngest son's. As the resident congregational poet, I've also given the occasional High Holiday sermon, and spent eight years coordinating a Jewish literacy program.

After a shooter entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday and killed 11 worshippers, I received an email from the community center president saying there would be a meeting about "sanctuary security" after this Saturday's Shabbat services.

News reports say that the suspected gunman in Pittsburgh -- who had 21 guns registered to his name according to The New York Times -- barged into Tree of Life with an assault rifle and three handguns. In Virginia, at gun shows, you can still buy a weapon with no background check, as long as you're over 18 and have two forms of ID.

President Donald Trump, when asked about gun laws, said this: "This is a case where if they had an armed guard inside they may have been able to stop him immediately, maybe there would have been nobody killed." The gunman, according to news reports, shot four armed police officers. And yet, if we in Blacksburg start locking our doors on Shabbat and High Holidays, and keep people who are unknown to us from entering our sanctuary, we'll be going against the very tenets of our religious and community ideals.

In some ways, security is a relatively new concern for us. The doors to our religious school were always unlocked when school was in session until the start of the 2017 school year. After white supremacists marched through Charlottesville -- which is 150 miles away from us -- chanting, "Jews will not replace us," the religious school parents unanimously decided it would be safer to start locking the door when school was in session. After Charlottesville, some parents at our tiny school also insisted we hire an off-duty police officer to stand outside the Jewish community center on Sunday mornings when Hebrew school was in session.

I was opposed to posting an armed guard outside the religious school for many reasons. As the granddaughter of Auschwitz survivors, I had grown up with an experience of Judaism that was somber and practiced from a place of deep trauma, sadness and pain. I didn't want my sons to have the same experience -- to feel that Sunday school was a place of anything other than joy and kavanah (intention), or to feel that they were under threat in an area that's generally welcoming to them.

I also thought that hiring our own security would draw more attention to the building and potentially make us more of a target, and it would send a message to the community -- to the churches directly next to our Jewish center, and to the people who attend them on Sundays when religious school is also in session -- that they're not responsible for looking out for us, their neighbors.

In other ways, however, the question of security is one that has defined my time in this community. I teach at Virginia Tech, the site of the third worst mass shooting in US history, which left 32 people dead. We were the worst mass shooting in the country when I arrived here in 2007. Nearly every college campus has implemented campus-wide emergency notifications and assembled threat assessment teams, but since the shootings, Virginia has actually reversed regulations around firearms, and it's now easier than ever to get a gun here.

Our state Legislature has eliminated the one-handgun-per-month purchasing law, made it easier for people to carry concealed weapons and failed to pass legislation expanding background checks. Every single college student at Virginia Tech right now has experienced a lockdown drill, or an actual lockdown at his or her elementary, middle or high school. If you have children, your kids have also. My kids have, too. My oldest son has been through an actual lockdown in preschool when another gunman was on the loose here and shot a campus police officer.

But my response, to resist the presence of armed security, was primarily driven by the fact that, unlike any of the other parents in our congregation, I am raising one white son and one black son in the Appalachian South of the 21st century. What became clear to me as soon as my black son was no longer attached to my body in a sling, or in a stroller being wheeled by me, that my white privilege would not protect him as he moved through this world, and there was little I could do to keep him safe from racism, bigotry, hatred and the violence that often follows.

We can be vigilant as parents, but if someone is hell-bent on doing harm to our children, or to our bodies, because they're anything other than whatever this current US society considers normative -- anything other than white, male, Christian, cisgender, able-bodied and heterosexual -- then there is almost nothing we can do to stop them. Not with the gun laws we have, and the weaponry available to nearly anyone in the United States. And not with the President we currently have, who fosters hatred by espousing all the things my religion taught me to work against via our mandate of social justice and tikkun olam (repairing the world): hatred, bitterness, deceit, misogyny, racism, xenophobia, greed and lack of empathy.

Our Jewish community center ended up hiring a rotating roster of off-duty cops, who were only able to staff the position about half the time, and this year, we got better locks on the religious school door, put in impact-resistant glass, and parents took turns doing door-duty each week. Though many urban Jewish centers and synagogues have already had armed guards or security in place for many years, our small-town and rural houses of worship, like many churches, are open to people during services on Shabbat (our sabbath) and high holidays such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and other days of atonement, festivals and celebrations. At the beginning of our Passover Seders each year, we throw open the doors to our homes and say the words from the Haggadah: Let all who are hungry come and eat. The Torah tells us to welcome the stranger no fewer than 36 times.

I don't know what the synagogue will ultimately decide to do about sanctuary security. We're a ragtag Appalachian congregation that often hosts Jewish students and strangers who roll in from mountain towns miles away.

I do know that I hope my Christian neighbors start speaking up against this current administration, and that they send a message of solidarity by voting. As my friend, Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein, reminded many of us on the day of the Pittsburgh tragedy, our texts teach that prayer is not enough -- we must "Demand peace and pursue it" (Psalm 34). Or to put it as Deborah Lipstadt, noted scholar of Holocaust studies, has: "Silence in the face of bigotry is acquiescence."

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