Four years after Tree of Life, security remains a concern for Erie houses of worship

Days after a gunman killed 11 worshippers and injured six other people in a mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, the congregation of Brith Sholom in Erie found themselves outnumbered by non-members at their first Shabbat service following that attack.

"We filled the entire sanctuary with people from all over the city, not just Jews," said Jeff Pinski, a congregant and member of Brith Sholom's board. "We were actually outnumbered by non-Jews, including public officials. It was a sign of solidarity, just heartfelt by all of us."

Also in attendance that day were members of the Erie Bureau of Police Special Weapons and Tactics Team.

2018 report:Brith Sholom invites community to Shabbat service

Within days of the mass shooting on Oct. 27, 2018, at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood, officials at Brith Sholom took action on adding security, said Pinski, who is also in charge of security.

Brith Sholom, which has fewer than 100 members, now has armed security at all of its services at 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 been implemented as well, Pinski said.

"This was, unfortunately, something that had to happen after the Tree of Life situation," he said.

Brith Sholom is not alone in reviewing and addressing security at a house of worship in the Erie area following the events of Oct. 27, 2018. Churches of all faiths in the region have taken a closer look on how to protect their facilities and those who come to pray and have taken steps to improve security, in some cases with the aid of state grant funding.

Shootings at places of worship are a concerning trend

The Tree of Life shooting — with that synagogue's close proximity to the Erie region — triggered a series of reevaluations for places like Temple Anshe Hesed in Millcreek Township, said its rabbi, Rob Morais. But more than that, there have been increasing incidents of anti-Semitic events and crimes throughout the country and the world over the last several years, he said.

The Anti-Defamation League reported in April that anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. reached an all-time high in 2021, with 2,717 incidents of assault, harassment and vandalism reported to the league. It was the highest number of incidents on record since the league began tracking incidents in 1979, according to a news release announcing the findings.

Attacks on Jewish institutions, including synagogues, were up 61% over the previous year, according to the report.

A hateful year: Pa. sees record highs in white supremacy, anti-Semitism during COVID-19

Morais said in response to the increasing incidents, and in consultation with its partners, Temple Anshe Hesed, which has a congregation of about 150 families," evaluated and realigned our security to meet the current situation."

Morais declined to address the specifics of the synagogue's security measures.

Capt. Carter Mook, patrol supervisor for the Millcreek Township Police Department, said his department's patrol officers have given extra attention to the temple during the hours of its worship services ever since the Tree of Life shooting.

The Erie Bureau of Police and the Pennsylvania State Police don't provide enhanced patrols around places of worship in the city and surrounding areas on a regular basis, but will do so if advised of an incident or requested to do so, according to officials of both agencies.

Catholic Diocese of Erie allow parishes to create security plans

The Catholic Diocese of Erie began looking at the question of security in greater detail several years ago, said its chancellor, the Rev. Christopher Singer. Discussions were held among the diocese's priest council, with representatives of Catholic schools, and among those at the diocesan offices in Erie, he said.

"Basically what we decided at that point, regarding parishes, was that parishes were free to work on their own or together with neighboring parishes if they wished to put together specific plans," Singer said.

Singer noted that the diocese, which covers 13 counties, is diverse, and said the concerns are vastly different in its regions.

"It made more sense for parishes to work on a regional level, and many have done that," he said. "Often, what was done is they work with their own parishioners who are involved in public safety, law enforcement, maybe retired law enforcement, and they look at their facilities, doors, exits, and come up with their own plan."

One Catholic church active in addressing security is All Saints Parish in Waterford. Its pastor, the Rev. Gregory Passauer, said the parish created a security council that has developed emergency plans for the church and has studied and made security improvements to the facility in consultation with parish council and the church's finance committee.

The church has, for example, upgraded the building's doors and security system and has given its religious education teacher walkie-talkies, Passauer said.

2019 report:Keeping sacred spaces safe

How do they pay for protection?

Adding security to Brith Sholom comes at a cost, Pinski said. What helped, he said, was a significant donation provided by the Jewish Community Council of Erie.

Aiding Temple Anshe Hesed in 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 funds to nonprofit organizations that principally serve individuals, groups or institutions that are included within a bias motivation category for singe bias hate crime incidents as identified 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. The categories include race/ethnicity/ancestry, religion, sexual orientation, disability, gender, and gender identity, according to the release.

Multi-Cultural Health Evaluation Delivery Systems, Inc., which provides healthcare to Erie's multicultural community, received $23,316 during the first year of the grant program in 2020. In 2021, grant funding was awarded to the Islamic Association of Erie ($24,955), Urban Erie Community Development Corp. ($21,125), and to Temple Anshe Hesed, according to the PCCD.

"We're very thankful to the state for providing us much-needed monies," 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."

Erie County's grant recipients this year are St. Jude the Apostle Church, $47,707; and the Bosnian Islamic Community Erie Inc., $25,000.

Officials with the Bosnian Islamic Community applied for the funding to add security, including upgraded cameras, to their facility on West 21st Street in Erie, said Nurija Cibralik, board president. He said the community has not experienced any hate crimes, but their building has been vandalized and broken into.

Officials at St. Jude will use the money for the purchase of safety and security planning, equipment, training, technology and other enhancements to improve the facility's security, state Rep. Ryan Bizzarro, of Millcreek Township, D-3rd Dist., said in announcing the receipt of the grant in April.

"We must ensure the safety of anyone who works, prays or visits any of the brick-and-mortar places of worship in our region," Bizzarro said in a news release.

St. Jude's pastor, the Rev. Ross Miceli, said the church has been upgrading its security door systems and its security cameras and is also purchasing automated external defibrillators and trauma kits.

Security panel discussion planned

St. Jude is additionally hosting an interfaith panel discussion, "Safeguarding the Sacred," on Nov. 16 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the church, 2801 W. Sixth St. The program, put together by the parish's adult formation committee, was set up to connect other congregations for discussion, as all have "similar opportunities and challenges with everything that is happening," Miceli said.

The program, which is open to the public, is designed to be "kind of a spiritual conversation," but also a practical conversation, he said.

"How do we welcome people to our congregations in an age of fear and anxiety and the very real fact that people harm other people, but a church is a place of healing?" Miceli said.

Jeff Pinski, of Brith Sholom, said his congregation is thankful for the Jewish Community Council of Erie's support in helping them to increase security. The congregation, he said, is no different than any other place in the country, any other congregation, no matter what branch of Judaism.

"We don't want it to be the new norm, but it is what we have to do," he said.

Contact Tim Hahn at Follow him on Twitter @ETNhahn.

This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: Erie churches, synagogues boost security against shootings