Bringing Light to the Media Darkness

Inclusion and safety at synagogue: A congruent conversation

It seems that the main obstacle to Jews of color feeling like they are full members of the tribe are those inside the door, not those outside of it.

Remaining stained glass in the synagogue’s interior. An entire renovation is being planned, August 2019. Credit:
Remaining stained glass in the synagogue’s interior. An entire renovation is being planned, August 2019. Credit:
Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll
Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll

The hostages were still being held at gunpoint in Colleyville, Texas, when Twitter comments on security in the synagogue began:

“Before you think that armed guards at synagogues are the answer, read this … ”

“There will be calls to tighten security in and around Jewish spaces, to look at guests—particularly guests of color—with suspicion.”

“Thinking about how the response to this moment will likely lead to an increase of armed security in Jewish spaces. This will make many white Jews feel safer. This will also make many BIPOC Jews unsafe … ”

Few, if any, of these calls came from black Jews. The conversation seemed designed specifically to end all conversation on increased security in Jewish spaces by labeling anyone who did so as caring only for white Jews, and thus, racist.

But for many black Jews, the inflammatory claims about security in synagogue not only miss a major point but actually compound the real challenge they face in the synagogue—namely, marginalization by fellow Jews.

Noah Shufutinsky is a black Russian Jew who feels the idea that Jews of color don’t want security is both false and marginalizing. “It bothers me when people push this narrative. Obviously, having security in front of synagogues is going to make it safer. Honestly, I’ve felt far more marginalized in Jewish spaces from people constantly questioning my Judaism than I ever did from cops in front of my synagogue.”

For Shufutinsky, the conversation itself marginalizes him, “as though I would feel safer exposed to terrorists than I would with police, as though I don’t feel as scared or concerned when synagogues are unsafe. Why am I being separated from other Jews? I believe in the need for security in response to threats just like any other Jew.”

He finds it particularly egregious that safety for Jews is sacrificed first in the larger “abolish the police” agenda. “Why is the first place they are going to do this in synagogues where there are literally shootings and bombs threats. This is where you’re going to start?”

Elisheva Rishon, an Orthodox, black and Jewish woman, feels this separation as well. She says the only time she has problems with security in shul is when “another Jewish person gets nervous, goes to security and points me out as a “suspicious person.”

She recalled an incident, one of many, she says. She had gone through security but as she entered the sanctuary, a Jewish security representative ran after her demanding she go through another check. “He said he had to see what was in my pockets. I told him the security guard had already done so. He said he had to make sure that all the Jews in there were safe. I said, ‘I’m also a Jew!’”

Painfully, she reflects, “The people making it difficult for me to be black and Jewish aren’t security, but my fellow Jews.”

Tova Richardo agrees. “There needs to be security at synagogues. I’m a black person who wants law enforcement/security to work for all people. I don’t want to be profiled by congregants or security, but I’m more likely to be profiled by a congregant than security. It’s important that myself, my family or others like us are protected in synagogue.”

Yirmiyahu Danzig is a Caribbean and Jerusalemite Jew who served in the Israeli Border Police feels that security is a must and that it would be best coming from the community itself.

“In the years after 9/11, I and my family members were made to feel very uncomfortable when trying to enter our synagogue. I understood the motivations but it was clear that security needed sensitivity training. We need to be clear about the need to protect our synagogues but it’s best if the people from the community take on the role themselves.

He is currently working on implementing this for numerous synagogues. “This is far preferable to bringing police into the synagogue. If people in the community aren’t ready to volunteer and be trained, then go to a private firm willing to have proper sensitivity training.”

Tyler Samuels, former executive member of Jews of Colour Canada also sees this as a good solution. “Black Jews should be involved in the synagogue and trained to look for suspicious behavior, not color. I see this as a middle-of-the-road approach that can protect everyone and where everyone is comfortable without racial profiling.

“I found it very detrimental to start this conversation while Jews were being held hostage, and then to bring black Jews into the conversation, saying that if we increase security or bring police, they will feel more unsafe.”

“I reject that idea. How many black Jews have died trying to get into a synagogue? I don’t say this lightly, I have had horrible experiences with police. I’ve been stopped, frisked and profiled, but I feel safety and security is the utmost thing. I might die because of police brutality but I will die if there is an active shooter in a synagogue.

“I feel people are using a theory that might happen, which is a legitimate concern, but not all black Jews agree. We are not a monolith. This is the key difference between talking theory and talking reality. Gunmen don’t care if you’re black, Mizrachi, Sephardi, Ashkenazi. You’re a Jew, and they want to kill you.’ ”

It seems, ironically, that the main obstacle for Jews of color isn’t security, but painfully, their fellow Jews. For the well-being of all our members, we must ensure that sensitive security checks protect us outside the synagogue and that all are treated equally on the inside.

Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll is an Israeli-based journalist and writer. 

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.

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