Temple Emanu-El, a dominating fixture on New York City’s Fifth Avenue and 65th Street at Central Park, has a new architectural feature near its entrance: A series of massive stones, spaced to prevent a vehicle from mounting the sidewalk and harming pedestrians or slamming into the 92-year-old building.
Those boulders-turned-bollards symbolize the anxiety in America’s Jewish community as Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, begins Wednesday evening.
The 24-hour period of fasting, contemplation and communal prayer is generally regarded as the holiest day of the Jewish liturgical year and is part of the fall festivals known as the High Holy Days that began on the evening of Sept. 6 with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.
Such preparations were once unheard of in an America that for more than a century has been regarded as a safe haven for Jews escaping pogroms in Czarist Russia or those fortunate enough to gain admittance after the Nazis seized Europe.
But after a string of antisemitic attacks in recent years, including shootings and deaths at synagogues in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Poway, California; the stabbing of a Chabad rabbi outside a Jewish school in Boston; and — just days ago — threats at a Minnesota synagogue that forced the cancellation of in-person weekly services, security has become a priority for the Jewish community.
Matt Walzer, business manager of Beth El synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, said that despite the threats, his congregation will meet in person on Yom Kippur.
“I think now the American Jewish community is becoming, unfortunately, more and more aware” of the need for security said Evan Bernstein, chief executive officer of Community Security Service, a New York-based group that trains volunteers to help guard Jewish institutions.
“Over the last five or six, seven years, you’ve seen this dramatic uptick in hate crimes towards Jews and assaults and murderous acts toward Jews,” Mr. Bernstein said in an interview. “And I think now, finally, the community is starting to take notice and understanding that security at all levels is critical.”
Aki Fleshler, security director for Congregation Kesser Israel in Portland, Oregon, said the synagogue has been security conscious despite being located far from the city’s center, where protests in 2020 caused massive property damage: “We’re three miles away, we’re not right on top of that,” he explained.
“On the other hand, the White supremacist and neo-Nazi movements are prett y strong here in the Pacific Northwest,” Mr. Fleshler said. The groups, he added, have “let us know that they know we were here.”
He explained that the Orthodox Jewish congregation is even more conspicuous because members generally walk to and from services, with men wearing a yarmulke, or skullcap, as a symbol of their faith. He said the “degrading public safety environment in Portland” has also caused concern.
The antisemitic attacks of recent years have changed the way the Kesser Israel synagogue — which has a High Holy Day attendance “in the low hundreds” — views security, Mr. Fleshler added.
“We never had cameras,” he said. “I had been trying to get exterior visible cameras for years, it was added after the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh three years ago. I convinced the board to fund some [interior] and exterior cameras; we upgraded them a year ago. They look very professional. It has helped us sort some things out like, ‘Why is this person in our parking lot?’, but also, it’s a deterrent; people see them.”
Mr. Fleshler credited the 16-year-old federal Nonprofit Security Grant Program, administered by the Department of Homeland Security, with helping to make the congregation’s physical plant more secure.
“We’re better [prepared] externally and internally,” he said of Kesser Israel’s security measures. “Externally, we feel we are providing deterrence by the obvious external security measures we have in place. We are also better prepared to respond in case of an emergency of any kind. Anything from harassment to out and out violent attacks, we’re better able to respond.”
Homeland Security recently announced the funding for the nonprofit program would double to $180 million for the fiscal year beginning in October.
Previous awards have been allocated to synagogues and other houses of worship, parochial day schools, summer camps, and a variety of other nonprofit organizations across the United States, according to the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, whose advocacy arm helped pioneer the program.
“Quality security does not come cheap,” said Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s executive director for public policy. “The NSGP grants really provide significant resources to the synagogues, as well as other Jewish community institutions, and also institutions and other faith communities, churches, temples, [and] mosques, to make their facilities more secure and to keep their people safe.”
Mr. Diament said the group hopes to see the funding increase to $360 million for the 2022 fiscal year, and is looking to Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, and other congressional leaders for support.
But money isn’t the only issue, Mr. Diament said. Attitudes need to change.
“Antisemitism really needs to be given no oxygen in our society,” he said. “We need government leaders, societal leaders, media and entertainment leaders, people in all sectors to speak out against antisemitism and other forms of bigotry as well.”
Meanwhile, in Portland, Mr. Fleshler of Kesser Israel is eyeing the upcoming holy day a bit warily.
“We’d like to be optimistic,” he said when asked about his outlook. “I know there are very specific threats out there, even if I don’t know which ones they are. I’m waiting for graffiti to show up at my center, at my cemetery. And I’m waiting for somebody to start making speeches in the middle of our services. I am glad we’re ready for it. But I think I’m not entirely optimistic that we’ll get through this holiday incident-free.”