Colleyville synagogue standoff highlights struggle to secure religious spaces

Brandon Wade/AP
·8 min read

When she woke up early Sunday morning after watching the hostage situation unfold at Congregation Beth Israel hours before, Hannah Lebovits didn’t know what to tell her children.

The UT Arlington professor and her husband are used to teaching their children, ages 4 and 7, about safety. But they haven’t explained why the Orthodox Jewish family’s cultural and religious spaces — their synagogue, the children’s Jewish schools, the Jewish community center, the kosher market — are uniquely vulnerable.

Similar to Jewish spaces around the country, armed officers guard the family’s synagogue and the Jewish school the Lebovits’ children attend.

After the crisis in Colleyville, it’s possible there will be more.

In the aftermath of violence perpetrated in religious spaces, one response you’ll hear is, “We need more security.”

For some, it’s an inevitable part of protecting vulnerable groups in an increasingly divided and sometimes hateful world.

But others, like Lebovits, question whether fortifying religious spaces makes them safer and, beyond that, if increased security could harm vulnerable communities.

“I think that we’re trying to ascribe a specific pattern to something where there isn’t really a pattern evident,” she said. “In my mind, we have to simultaneously accept the fact that Jewish spaces are vulnerable with the fact that protecting those spaces doesn’t necessarily come with a consistent deterrent or criteria.”

Because many security plans are determined by religious leaders, operating in a security context over which ordinary congregants have no control only makes things worse, she said.

“I have no power over how vulnerable we are, no power over how we mitigate risks and no power over which deterrence we choose to go with,” she said. “It’s very hard to have those conversations [with my kids] because it feels like I’m just dropping this weight on them and leaving it there.”

Saturday’s security breach

On Saturday morning, hostage-taker Malik Faisal Akram knocked on the glass door of Congregation Beth Israel, and, thinking he needed shelter, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker let him in.

The breach of access to the synagogue epitomizes the tension between securing religious spaces and welcoming those in need.

“One of the tenets of Judaism is for us to be welcoming,” said Russ Schultz, president at Congregation Beth-El, a reform synagogue in southwest Fort Worth. ”If there’s a stranger, we’re supposed to welcome them in. That plays somewhat against the idea of security. We have to balance that, what we believe as a Jew, with the other side of the coin, that we have to make sure our congregants and those participating are safe.”

The four hostages credit self-defense training conducted by Chicago-based security nonprofit Secure Community Network on Aug. 22 for their survival.

To escape, Walker threw a chair at Akram, and the group of three ran out together (one hostage had been released earlier).

Because of the training, congregants “knew they had to commit to action,” said Bradley Orsini, senior national security adviser at Secure Community Network.

In the choice between fighting, fleeing and freezing, “We really teach our community not to freeze,” he said.

Securing religious spaces

The most important aspect of securing a building is controlling access, Orsini said.

He and 50 other SCN security directors around the country help synagogues establish what Orisini calls “holistic” security programs that involve training congregants and fortifying religious spaces.

SCN’s courses teach situational awareness, active shooter protocols and “stop the bleed,” a program that aims to empower bystanders to help in a bleeding emergency.

Survivors of the 2018 massacre at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh credited Stop the Bleed with saving multiple lives.

In assessing how safe a congregation’s synagogue is, security consultants like Orsini visit the building and look for vulnerabilities, like propped open doors.

They might recommend measures like electronic locks, security cameras, a panic button or an intercom system that allows leaders to interact with people trying to gain access to the building outside of regular hours.

In addition to serving as access control, these visible signs of security are also deterrents to would-be shooters.

“By just having an armed presence outside a house of worship, that’s not the end-all be-all,” Orsini said. “You need to have holistic security.”

Security plans must be layered to be effective, and, of course, security measures are only effective if people know how to use them.

It’s incumbent upon religious leaders to instruct congregants how to use the panic button and where it is and also the location of exits.

Furthermore, different congregations have different security needs.

“The security that is necessary for Central Synagogue in New York City is not the same we need for Beth-El in Fort Worth, Texas,” Schultz said.

Since securing a space can be expensive, many synagogues exact an annual security fee from congregants. At Beth-El, congregants recently started paying a fee of $100 per year.

An armed congregation

Four years after converting to Catholicism, John Middleton is considering returning to the Episcopal church.

He was a greeter at his home parish, Good Shepherd Catholic Community in Colleyville, when, in early 2020, leadership decided to establish a group it called the “guardians.”

The program trains parishioners to “bridge the gap between when something happens and when first responders arrive,” said Mike Short, director of security at the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth. Some are armed.

When Middleton was approached about the role, “guardians” were instructed to watch multiple training videos, he said.

“They were so militaristic that I was in shock,” he said. “My reaction was, We can’t do this. This is a church. This is not what Jesus would do.”

Short acknowledges some congregants have been apprehensive about the program, but noted the group dresses to blend in with the congregation and does not open carry.

“It’s a discreet look,” Short said. “The whole goal behind it is really to be more welcoming and more in touch with the kind of parishioners who are walking in ... they have the heart of somebody who, out of justice and love for others, wants to be there to help others.”

At a church whose Masses regularly attract upwards of 1,000 people, things could get very deadly, very fast, Middleton feared. When he was younger, he never would have brought his children to a church guarded by a group of laypeople, he said.

That’s what concerns Lebovits.

“We know from research there are also negative impacts of kids feeling this cost of securitization for sure,” she said. “As somebody who has children, I’m also fearful of what it’s like to them that they walk into Jewish spaces and also see someone with a gun standing there and don’t really have an understanding of what that means or why it happens or what it’s intended to do.”

When it comes to Jewish congregants carrying firearms to synagogues, “our basic philosophy is don’t,” Schultz said. “Not in our house ... My suspicion is that’s normal.”

In its 2019 report, “Firearms and the Faithful,” SCN recommends “armed security is a matter best left to the best-trained professionals.”

Those who disagree might point to the 2019 shooting at West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement.

The gunman, 43-year-old Keith Thomas Kinnunen, fatally shot two people during a church service. Seconds later, an armed volunteer security team member killed Kinnunen.

Armed security is installed to deter a potential shooter. But if a shooter decides not to target one church, would they simply target another more vulnerable one?

“A specific point made in the presentation to ushers and greeters was we want would-be shooters to know that this is not a soft target,” Middleton said. “I said, OK, to the bishop in my letter, A would-be shooter shows up and he sees all of these armed guards and he decides, this isn’t the place for me. I’ll go one block down the street to Congregation Beth Israel.”

A balancing act

Experts agree, it’s possible to go too far with security measures.

“You don’t want it to become a prison,” Schultz said. “You can say to yourself, ‘I’m going to lock this place down and nobody’s going to get in.’ Well, is that what you really want to do?”

For many religious leaders, the answer is, no.

When it comes to security, the goal is “creating a plan and working a plan so you don’t have knee-jerk reactions,” said Barry Abels, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Fort Worth and Tarrant County. “As opposed to, ‘Oh my God, this all happened, let’s put up a big fence and barbed wire and look like a fortress.’”

While fear grips many Jewish communities after Colleyville, many congregants are refusing to let security discussions affect their religious practice.

“If I’m being honest, I don’t feel like I’ll do anything at all different,” Lebovits said about her religious practice in the aftermath of the hostage crisis.

“In fact, part of our tradition is to keep showing up. ... It’s even more important to say no, we’re going to keep showing up. We’re going to be there. You can’t stop us. You can’t intimidate us. We will always show up, always keep coming.”

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