Armed guards deployed at Chandler, other synagogues The Chandler Arizonan

Armed guards deployed at Chandler, other synagogues

Armed guards deployed at Chandler, other synagogues
Neighbors
0

By Kevin Reagan
Arizonan Staff Writer

After a series of attacks at synagogues across the country, Jewish communities in Chandler and neighboring communities are beefing up their security to prevent similar offenses.

Armed guards can sometimes be seen patrolling the grounds of Chandler’s Chabad of the East Valley – carrying firearms and keeping watch for any potential threats while congregants worship inside during Shabbat services.

Rabbi Mendy Deitsch said his synagogue has had volunteer guards providing security for the last couple years. Almost every other Jewish community in the Valley’s taking the same measures, he added, so it made sense for his facility to do something similar.

“That’s, unfortunately, the reality of the times we live in,” Deitsch said.

He declined to disclose how often or how many volunteers provide security for his facility – citing security concerns – but said there haven’t been any prior incidents of violence at his synagogue.

The rabbi said he worried at first the presence of armed guards might intimidate congregants and discourage them from attending services. But this concern has since subsided.

“We found just the opposite is true,” Deitsch added. “In fact, more people come because of it. People are more comfortable and much more at ease.”

The Chandler synagogue is one of several places of worship taking extra precautions to secure its facilities after a mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 left 11 people dead – making it the deadliest attack on America’s Jewish community.

The 46-year-old man who carried out the crime was allegedly heard shouting “All Jews must die” before opening fire on the synagogue’s congregants.

The 2018 massacre was one of 1,550 religiously-motivated offenses committed in the United States that year, according to data released by the FBI. More than 50 percent of those offenses were motivated by feelings of anti-Semitism.

Arizona has had its fair share of troubling incidents targeting the Valley’s Jewish community. In 2009, someone spray-painted a red swastika on a sign posted outside the Chabad Center in Chandler.

Most recently, a Queen Creek man was arrested for conspiring with alleged neo-Nazis to harass a journalist from a Jewish-affiliated publication.

Though Rabbi Laibel Blotner has not felt discriminated or targeted since relocating to Mesa several years ago, he’s still concerned by the number of hate crimes he reads about in the news.

Violence touched Blotner’s family last year after his daughter’s father-in-law survived a deadly attack at a California synagogue.

Since then, Blotner has had surveillance cameras installed at the Chabad Jewish Center of Mesa and assembled a team of community members to provide armed security during services.

The rabbi said the 150 families attending his synagogue have, so far, not minded the presence of armed guards.

“I think the community has been very encouraging,” Blotner said. “I think they understand we need to take measures.”

Arizona law classifies churches, synagogues, and mosques as private property, so faith leaders like Blotner and Deitsch get to decide whether to allow armed individuals onto the premises.

Jewish communities are not the only ones taking advantage of this discretion afforded to them under the law.

After a mass shooting at a New Zealand mosque last March, some of the Valley’s Islamic communities reacted by hiring off-duty police officers to watch over local mosques during religious celebrations.

The Secure Community Network, a Jewish-focused nonprofit, released a report in January highlighting the “urgency” existing for faith communities to devise security plans.

The report recommended synagogues having uniformed police officers stand guard during services, yet this may not always be a realistic option in every community.

Arming a group of volunteers could present more problems than solutions, the report states, if they’re not given any training to handle high-stress situations.

Yonatan Stern is helping to fill the training gap in Arizona by providing specialized firearms instruction.

The Pennsylvania resident is the founder of Cherev Gidon Israeli Tactical Training Academy and spends his winters in the desert, teaching local Jews how to defend themselves.

“There is a lot of demand,” Stern said, noting how he spent last month conducting training sessions for Jewish communities in Scottsdale, Chandler, and Phoenix.

After the Pittsburgh massacre, Stern said he redirected his efforts to focus on boosting security at synagogues. No one inside the Pittsburgh synagogue was armed, Stern noted, which he thinks might have changed the outcome.

Some of Stern’s training includes active-shooter simulations inside synagogues and allowing his students to “dry fire” their weapons – meaning they’re not loaded with ammunition.

This picture may sound dramatic to some, but Stern believes this type of training is necessary for the times.

“We don’t live in the 1950s anymore,” Stern said. “We live in a very dangerous time. It’s a matter of life or death.”

For Rabbi Blotner of Mesa, he hopes his synagogue’s armed guards will remain only a precaution and won’t ever be needed for an actual emergency.

Comments are closed.