In Kansas City’s synagogues, armed security has been a presence for years — particularly on major holidays such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Some synagogues hire guards every Friday night and Saturday morning for Shabbat (sabbath) services. At others, armed security protects children as they come and go for preschool.
“I don’t want to give too much away,” said Rabbi Alan Londy of the New Reform Temple on Main Street. “But let me tell you this. We have nothing — we don’t do Sunday school, or Shabbat services or any major event, including funerals — without off-duty policemen.”
Some Jewish congregations in the Kansas City area took on extra security measures after April 2014, when William Corporon, 69, and his grandson, Reat Underwood, 14, were gunned down outside the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City in Overland Park. Minutes later, 53-year-old Terri LaManno was shot and killed outside the nearby Village Shalom senior living facility, where she was visiting her mother. None of the victims was Jewish, a fact unknown at the time time to the gunman, 73-year-old F. Glenn Miller, a neo-Nazi convicted of the crimes.
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Some Jewish institutions had been hiring off-duty police officers long before the 2014 killings. In fact, an off-duty police officer was stationed inside the Jewish Community Center on the day of the shooting.
Congregation Beth Torah, a synagogue of some 400 families in Overland Park, has used armed security for major holidays for at least 20 years, said Laura Intfen, director of operations. Faculty and staff, she said, have undergone active shooter training.
“One thing we did in response to the shooting at JCC: We keep all our doors locked 24/7, and members have key fobs for access. We have security cameras.” The cameras, she said, allow staff to see visitors prior to unlocking the doors.
On Monday evening, security was expected to be tight, with armed police and bag searches, for an interfaith community vigil in memory of the Tree of Life victims at Kehilath Israel Synagogue in Overland Park.
Nationally, acts of anti-Semitism rose a record 57 percent in 2017, according to an audit of such incidents by the Anti-Defamation League. It is the largest single-year increase since the group began tracking the data in 1979.
But in the Kansas City area, precautions against anti-Semitic acts of violence predate current events by years or decades.
“We’ve always had armed security during Shabbat services for many years,” said Bernie Fried, executive director of Congregation Beth Shalom in Overland Park. “Even when we were in Kansas City, on Wornall, there was always somebody here armed on a Saturday morning.”
Adding that Beth Shalom “is very security conscience,” he said that armed personnel are on the premises whenever children are in the building. Anti-Semitism has long been the driving motivation.
“Absolutely,” Fried said. “After what happened at the J (Jewish Community Center) and Village Shalom, of course, everyone’s ears went up. We implemented security armed guards at all times.”
He continued, “To me, it’s a deterrent. There are places that have no security. I get it. They have a different theory. … You’re not going to stop the world from changing. You have to live in the world, so you have to find a way to live peacefully. It is like buying an insurance policy. I’m a firm believer that I’d rather prepare for it upfront.”
Such preparation is hardly without precedent, even in other faiths. Ever since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Muslims at work, at home and in their mosques have been the focus of violence nationwide.
“It’s common for us. We’ve actually made sure we’ve had security for quite some time,” said Imam Sulaiman Salaam, leader of the Al Haqq Islamic Center on Prospect Avenue.
Jabir Hazzeiz, a former Kansas City police officer and a current Jackson County Sheriff’s deputy who is Muslim, began a business, Principle Intelligence, that offers security to a number of mosques across Kansas City.
Last year, security firms reported a rise in business at churches following the massacre of 25 people in a Texas church.
The president’s assertion that the deaths at Tree of Life might have been prevented with armed security, given that the alleged gunman, Robert Bowers, 46, carried a semi-automatic rifle, struck some in Kansas City’s Jewish community as speculative at best. Some suggested it bordered on victim-shaming.
“I just didn’t see the point in it,” Intfen said. “Whether it is a horrible idea or a good idea, that is obviously his opinion. To me, it equates to telling a woman she gets raped because she wears a provocative dress. It did not make sense to me. Because even if there had been a security service, there was no way. The man had a semi-automatic weapon.
“What I look for is help and comfort from my government. I didn’t think it was either of those things.”
Londy of New Reform Temple said such security has been long in coming to the synagogues in the United States.
“In America,” he said, “we have just been living in la-la land.” In Europe, he said, security around synagogues has been strict for decades.
“I was just in London,” he said. “I went to a synagogue on a Friday night. They quizzed you. You just couldn’t get in. When I was in Rome years ago — you’re talking maybe 30 years ago — I couldn’t get into a synagogue. And I’m a rabbi.”
Londy said that he fears a rise of anti-Semitism.
“I am not paranoid at all,” he said. “But, truth be told, I think it is going to be worse. Anti-Semitism in our country: I think something has been unleashed that is really horrible.”
Yet, he noted, despite the violence in Pittsburgh, his congregation showed up. “We had the best attendance in Sunday school that we ever had,” he said.