Local Synagogues increase security in wake of Pittsburgh shooting

Congregation B'nai Torah celebrates the onset of the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur at the synagogue in Trumbull, Conn.

Congregation B'nai Torah celebrates the onset of the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur at the synagogue in Trumbull, Conn.

Christian Abraham / Hearst Connecticut Media

Scores of synagogues around the region and the nation beefed up security in the wake of Saturday’s Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh as rabbis and other religious leaders called for a dialing down of the toxic rhetoric that seems to have taken hold of the nation in recent years.

Soon after the Saturday morning attack that was called the deadliest on the Jewish community in U.S. history, rabbis and synagogue officials began sending reassurances to congregants — although some had to delay because the use of electric devices is forbidden until sundown for Orthodox Jews.

“I am sure that when Shabbat ended and you turned your phones on, you were as horrified as I was at the events that took place in Pittsburgh,” wrote Simeon Wohlberg, president of Congregation Agudath Sholom in Stamford. “This week, the security committee will be meeting with the chief of police as well as a representative from the mayor’s office to discuss what can be done to enhance our security needs.”

That conversation — between rabbis and police — was repeated is some form or another throughout the region in the hours that followed the Tree of Life bloodbath that left 11 people dead.

Agudath Sholom has long had a police officer posted in the lobby during Shabbos and high holy days — Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — as do many other area synagogues and temples.

“When we had religious school yesterday (Sunday), a Bridgeport police car was parked outside the synagogue,” said Jim Prosnit, rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel. “And a lieutenant from the police department was just here discussing security measures, and we’re very appreciative of their concerns.”

Prosnit said that he’s received an outpouring of support from religious and political leaders, which, he said, has meant a lot to him and others at B’nai Israel.

“Unfortunately, the guard rails that have kept the hatred in this country to a narrow lane seem to have disappeared,” he said. “But people have to live their lives and we can’t allow fear to keep us from our faith.”

Temple Sholom in Greenwich told its members that it takes security “extremely seriously.”

The synagogue “was built and has been updated to be a protective environment with obvious and also nonvisible safety features,” leaders said in a statement. “We use a security company both to provide security guards, but also to provide educated guidance.”

As people of various faiths joined hands to comfort one another Saturday, law enforcement stationed officers at local synagogues and churches.

“When we learned of the incident in Pittsburgh, the deputy chief reached out to our Community Police Services Division who contacted our local temples to reassure them that we were aware and would be providing extra police coverage and would remain in contact with them should they have any further concerns,” Norwalk Police Chief Thomas Kulhawik said Monday. “We had established prior relationships. We then provided added police presence.”

Coincidentally, there was a prayer service Sunday at The Klein in Bridgeport to recall the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht. The featured speaker was Anne Frank’s stepsister, Eva Schloss. On Nov. 10, 1938, Nazis in Germany torched synagogues, vandalized Jewish homes, schools and businesses and killed close to 100 Jews. Soon after this “Night of Broken Glass,” 30,000 Jewish men were sent to Nazi concentration camps.

“She was clear that this incident was very different,” said Rabbi Yehuda Leib Kantor, co-director, Chabad Lubavitch of Wesport, who was at The Klein. “But at the same time, the Tree of Life tragedy is very unsettling. She pointed out that the warning signs of hatred and bigotry cannot be ignored.”

Local reaction again included calls for gun control, particularly on the sale of the AR-15 assault rifle that was used in the Pittsburgh massacre and other mass murders across the country.

“An attacker with an AR-15 would be all but impossible to stop by an armed guard or a police officer with a handgun,” said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “The challenge of providing security today is a lot more difficult than one might think.”

The attack was unsettling to the Muslim community, too, itself a target of vandals and hatred in recent years, said Ahmed M. Ebrahim, the Fairfield University economics professor who leads the Bridgeport Islamic Community Center on State Street.

“The threat of violence is always there, especially with the difficult political climate that we’re seeing now, Ebrahim said. “We have taken security precautions, but ultimately, you have to put your faith in God. We stand with our Jewish friends — they, like us, need to be proud of who they are, and we can’t be intimidated by these horrible acts of violence.”

“It’s up to all of us to find the positive,” said Rabbi Shlame Landa, co-director, Chabad of Fairfield. “You’re never going to defeat darkness with more darkness — and that was Eva’s message, too.”

“In light of the horrific display of intolerance this weekend in Pittsburgh, we at the (Danbury) United Jewish Center continue to, as a community, work toward elimination of ignorance, hatred and social injustice as we always have, but with a renewed commitment,” said Lisi Marcus, the volunteer president for the center .

Staff writers Julia Perkins, Ken Dixon and Thane Grauel contributed to this story.