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Rock, Paper, Scissors, Synagogue

Very early in his controversial criticism of the Jewish status quo, Gonzo Judaism, Rabbi Niles Goldstein asks:

“Who in their right mind would want to be part of a religious community whose motto, based on its past behavior, might as well be ‘Come Survive with Us?'”

He was talking about the same hackneyed themes I’ve complained about before. (For example, read my previous criticisms on these same grounds of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and Chicago’s own Spertus Institute.) The themes repeatedly trotted out by denominational Jewish leaders that define Jewish identity in the starkest of term. Essentially, that we are a people stiff-necked enough to not be completely eradicated every time someone wants to kill us–and that we should remain stiff-necked, since people will always want to kill us.

Hey, who else wants to be a Jewish convert? See how much fun it is?

There are so many other loving, positive, celebratory ways to define Judaism and live Jewish lives, but the above sentiments never go away. A big part of the reason why is that many Jews won’t let them.

My synagogue rents space on our second floor to a major inter-denominational day school. This week, our e-bulletin announced that in the wake of the Newtown school shootings, at the request of our school tenant, no one would be allowed in the building during the week unless they stopped at a guard station, had specific businesses in the building, showed identification, and wore at all times a “Visitor” badge around their neck.

Let’s unpack that.

First of all, what are synagogues if not the spiritual homes of the people who attend them. Not to mention the potential future spiritual homes of the people who seek them out. Say you’re a total stranger known by no one and you show up at the synagogue’s front door. Sorry, you don’t have an appointment. Call ahead next time and maybe you’ll be able to walk inside and actually, you know, see the sanctuary. Now pretend you’re a longtime member, regularly attend Shabbat services, everyone knows you, and not for nothing, your membership dues help employ the clergy and keep the lights on. You want whom to show I.D. and wear a sign around their neck?

In either instance, your synagogue has just gone from being welcoming to hiding behind a drawbridge–and sending a needlessly insulting message to members, to boot.

Is security an important issue? Absolutely, and not just in the Jewish community either. But you have to ask what kind of security? And how do you roll it out? And before those questions you also have to ask something else: Why?

When I left New York City in 2003, I had spent the previous year and a half watching post-9/11 Gotham pull up many a drawbridge. From architecturally significant skyscraper lobbies to the doors of neighborhood houses of worship, from entire streets to the front door of City Hall, all increasingly became off-limits to the public because of security fears. Sometimes an I.D. check and metal detector or pat down would get you in formerly completely public spaces. Other times, beloved places were just off-limits for good.

Public areas that weren’t off limits became clamped down in other ways. Imagine squads of machine gun-toting police officers stationed in Daley Plaza, rifle-wearing National Guardsmen standing around every corner of Union Station? Surprise bag searches to get on the ‘L’, and ominous anti-terrorism messages played between every station? Now change those places to Times Square, Grand Central Terminal, and the NYC subway and not only will you have a good idea of my bad memories from those last few months in New York, you’ll also have a good picture of the way things still are in my hometown.

When I came to Chicago, one of the most soul-affirming aspect of this place (and if you live in this wonderful place, you already know there are many such soul-affirming parts of the Chicago experience) was the absence of a city living its life in utter fear. So you can imagine the mood-destroying shock I was in when I read the email announcing the new security changes during Ryan’s and my two-year anniversary dinner last night.

It is normal to desire security and safety. It is a good thing to seek to protect our families and our congregations. (And, yes, a congregation that also rents space from us was a target of the foiled 2010 Yemeni mail bomb plot.) But this endless zeal for erecting higher and higher security fences around our public places–synagogues or anywhere else–tends to have the opposite effect of the one intended. It chokes off an important, open, welcoming attitude both towards people whom we don’t know and people whom we do. It makes it harder for us to reach out for each other. And it makes it harder to reach back.

But unfortunately, it usually doesn’t make us any safer. Because when you think about it–which, during moments of fear we rarely do–machine gun squads, armed Guardsmen, locked doors at the Woolworth Building lobby, and bag checks on the subway have absolutely no ability to stop airplanes from being flown into skyscrapers. Which is why all those security measures came to be in the first place.

Now a madman has senselessly murdered innocent children and we rightly want to protect our own kids from a similar incident. But if you followed the Newtown story, you already know that the killer entered the school by shooting away the front door with an assault rifle. Which is why we want to…roll out a mandatory card check and visitor badge?

Do I really have to rock-paper-scissors that for anyone?

Result? Our synagogue becomes less welcoming thanks to a security measure that has no hope of stopping the type of crime that we’re afraid of in the first place.

When I left New York, I promised myself I would not support the creation of the same type of knee-jerk and ultimately useless security measures that ate away at and ultimately devoured my hometown. I announced on Facebook last night that I wouldn’t be renewing my synagogue membership as long as the new policy is in place. It caused great consternation among my friends in the congregation and enormous unhappiness between me and Ryan. But it’s a promise I’ve abided by for ten years.

And if you want me to pay $2,400 a year for the privilege of having a moonlighting Chicago cop decide whether or not I’m allowed to have access to my spiritual home, it would help if the privilege actually fit the crime.

Categories: COMMUNITY Emanuel Congregation

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Michael Thaddeus Doyle

I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.

My Bio | My Conversion | My Family Reunion


19 replies

  1. When something terrible and terrifying happens people are frightened. Getting mad at them does no good. In fact it usual makes them more afraid. Years and years ago I heard dear Mr. Rogers say, “When I’m frightened, I can’t learn.” I can’t do a lot of things when I’m frightened. Getting people to change requires first putting them at ease. If you truly want to change your shul’s policy you have to begin by seeing things through their eyes. Once you are with them you can walk them gently to the place you want them to be.

  2. Perhaps a ship where Michael Doyle, and not Ha Shem, is what you really want. I am sure you won’t post this since you don’t like dissent either.

  3. It is. I think it just depends on the community. I will say, it’s a widespread Chicago reaction to voices of dissent. For ten years, I’ve always thought it just part of the culture here. I’ve herd it said in debates far more often here than I ever did in New York, secular or otherwise.

  4. “…people who share minority opinions about how things are run are often told to go elsewhere”. Isn’t that a problem in ALL organisations, not just Jewish ones whether religious or secular?

  5. I’ve never minded having to be buzzed in the door. Especially when I was working in the front office alone. It’s so quiet and a little creepy to be in an empty building without anyone around except all the way at the other end of a very long corridor. But that’s me. I have an alarm in my house too.

  6. So I’ll respond in unified fashion here. First, I want to honor the fact that the morning after this post was published, the editor of the Reform Judaism blog told me she had passed it around the URJ office as food for thought. Her reason is informative: because the people thinking about security and the people thinking about making synagogues welcoming at the URJ were doing both without any reference to the other. So I’m gratified to know this blog post helped show that security measures don’t exist in a vacuum. And shouldn’t.

    Jeffrey, I see what you’re saying. But Jewish life in the U.S. is a different animal than in the U.K. or anywhere else. There are many more Jews proportionately and in real terms here, and overt antisemitism is less widespread and much less socially tolerated in public by non-Jews. Besides being more numerous because there are more Jews, our synagogues tend to be far more open and far less restricted than those in the U.K. Judaism is more mainstream in the U.S. and American Jews can walk the streets of their cities openly as Jews–kippot included–quite freely. My partner raised the issue that schools in general have similar security restrictions for other reasons, and I think my response applies here, too. The issue is not the balance of secular schools across the U.S. or synagogues in ther U.K. and other countries. The issue is our synagogue.

    Shelli, I would tell you this: I would much rather you and all our other parents find comfort in a security measure that actually has a chance of providing security. This is not that measure. I know it might make parents feel better, but that’s not the same as actually protecting our children. Perhaps what our synagogue needs is a real, tough, wide conversation about security issues that can be both effective and respectful of the welcoming nature we have always had.

    Dena, yes we are. There is a security desk and a guard who asks where you’re going (since we have no other front desk at the door), but no barrier to entry, no identification check, and no badge. In other words, you don’t have to give your name to walk in, nor do I believe you should need to do so.]

    Linda, well i will tell you frankly. One of the things I like least about Emanuel is the way that people who share minority opinions about the way things are run are often told to leave and go elsewhere. I think that’s part of the problem, not part of the solution.

    Lila, it is about all of our dues and all other monies that come into the congregation. If the rules as stated in the bulletin are less stringent than I portrayed them, then I’m glad for that. However, as I responded above, I don’t think it’s wise for anyone to rely on security measures that have no real hope of providing security. On these grounds I have a different view–I don’t think we should cater or cave into fear (from CJDS or anywhere else on our campus.) Yes, we need the school–easily as much as they need us, mind you. They’re not going anywhere else. If they could afford to, which they can’t, they’d be gone already. Both sides know that. But I don’t see how it helps anyone to roll out useless security measures because we’re afraid of events that, when you get right down to it, you can’t stop. Awful, evil things happen. All empty security measures do is make needlessly complacent, which is no help at all.

  7. Difficult one. This blog has comment moderation enabled, but I’m not going to leave verbal abuse, and if someone did, who really cares? Of the two shuls in Newcastle upon Tyne, England (a city comparable in status to Philly or Phoenix), both have security measures – the one, a wall so high you can barely see the building within, the other, a fence. Both are alarmed, and The Other Place has what can only be described as blast doors. One doesn’t see armed police on the streets of Britain (except maybe in London), but the community has lots of Holocaust survivors and their children. To this day, some Modern Orthodox and Progressive/secular Holocaust survivors and their descendants will not tell people they’re Jewish if they can avoid it. To my knowledge, although metal has been stolen from church roofs throughout the country, no church has yet felt the need to install such draconian measures – but, they have replaced the metal with something whose name i forget, which looks the samecbut is not worth nearly as much – they haven’t just sat back and ignored the problem. Kayne hora, Newcastle hasn’t had a terrorist attack recently, but walk around with a kippah on and/or in a penguin suit, and you’ll get plenty of verbal abuse (though I should mention that BH, most non-Jews are fine with it). Like you, I’m visibly a Jew and audibly a proud convert, and like you, I’m not a parent. Unlike your (former?) synagogue, one can’t just walk in to ours at any time even without the fences – it isn’t even open if there isn’t an evening class, a school visit or a Shabbat or yontiff service. At times like this, people get skittish. People in Newcastle got skittish after the 7/7 bombings in London, and luckily nothing in that vein has happened here yet. Installing security measures and banning guns won’t stop the determined meshuggener, but it might delay them (hopefully long enough for someone to get help, quickly), and even deter the less determined. What’s more important, a minor inconvenience to you (let’s face it, we’re not talking police officers with guns here, are we?) or the lives of the community’s kids and the peace of mind of their parents?

  8. Michael, I write to you as a fellow NY’er, and as a parent. I saw the towers fall with my own eyes from 6th avenue and 23rd street. To this day, low-flying planes still startle me and make me get an instant knot in my stomach.

    I would like to turn it around, and ask for your help. What would you say to me, as a parent of a CJDS student who was in YOUR Shul from 8:15 each morning to 4:30pm each afternoon to help reassure ME that my child is a bit safer?

    Taking 30 seconds to say hi to the friendly security guards and get a lanyard that tells my child’s teachers that you are not a random stranger who could potentially pose a threat is a BIG help to MY sense of well being.

    That’s all. It’s pretty simple, and not such a big deal.

    If you still feel the need to look around, you can be a part of more than one spiritual community – Our hearts and souls are with CBST, back in NY, our Shul for over 20 years. Malka goes to CJDS, and Noah Matan will, G-d willing, keinihora, be joining her there this coming fall. I work for Emanuel, and we belong to Anshe Emet. Come daven there sometime – the Rose Crown Minyan is lovely, and you may know some people there already. And, like Emanuel, you only need a visitor’s badge during “normal business hours.”

  9. Are you usually able to walk in during the week? Both of my shuls require you to ring a bell and give your name if you want to enter the building outside of regular service hours.

  10. “What this means moving forward for you is if you come to the temple during school hours, please stop at the security desk in the lobby to sign in and receive a visitor pass. Then come to the Synagogue office so we can connect you to the person or group you are meeting. Please make sure to wear your visitor pass at all times while in the building. This informs staff and security you have completed the check in process and allows you to continue your normal activity in the building without interruption. At the end of your visit, simply sign out at the security desk and return your visitor badge on your way out.”

    This is directly taken from the bulletin. Nowhere does it say that you cannot come in if you do not have an appointment. Nowhere does it say you will be turned away if we do not know you. Nowhere does it say that you are not welcome at any time. Truth is, threats in schools come from more that just gunmen, and every checkpoint is a deterrent to those who might wish to do harm. I agree, this wouldn’t stop a gunman, nothing really would. But that doesn’t mean we just do nothing. A large part of the security on EL AL Airlines is the face to face interview. It’s a chance to observe the demeanor of the person seeking entry.

    Truth is also, we need the school in order to keep our doors open. Your dues and mine are just not enough. Personally, I think giving the families a greater sense of security is a small price to pay. It’s not all about how I feel.

  11. This is not the first time CJDS has instituted wearing a visitor badge when entering Emanuel. After the bomb threat against Or Chadash, visitors were required to wear name badges. You were a member at that time, why didn’t you complain about the badges then? I’m beginning to think that Emanuel is no longer a good fit for you and you’re looking for a way to leave. If so, just be honest about the reason

  12. When I went to visit the oldest shul in Georgia last month I wasn’t allowed to even step inside the door. The children were in the building and that was enough. They didn’t ask who I am, where I was from, etc. Now, in their case they get a lot of visitors. I suppose it would behoove them not to let them in during times when the kids are around. Still, it was disappointing.

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