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Ellis: The steps we should take to prevent a shooting in our shuls

Memorial to the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. (Andrea Hanks/White House photo)

Hate-fuelled incidents are taking place in quiet communities around the world with an alarming increase and tragic consequences. The reality is we are living in a world where there are seriously deranged, angry and hate-filled people with access to firepower. Without any provocation, they can act on a whim and do some serious damage.

Here in Canada, I am afraid that we are living with a false sense of security. Are we feeling somewhat immune that what is happening south of the border cannot happen here? Since 9/11 some of our larger synagogues have installed security booths, but many people attend smaller community shuls that may not have security strategies in place. I do not think that one can characterize me as overly paranoid to let my imagination consider for a moment what kind of carnage could be caused by a single gunman entering a Canadian shul.

Take the minyan I attend almost every Shabbat. A shooter could enter the building with ease and within moments make it into the main sanctuary where the only exit is a single door in the men’s section (there is no exit in the women’s section). I do not want to think of the potential tragedy that could ensue.

Last summer, our family attended Shabbat services at the New West End Synagogue in Bayswater in central London, one of the oldest Orthodox synagogues in the United Kingdom. Entering required a show of passports and a brief interrogation from the Israeli security team outside the building.

On this particular Shabbat, in the middle of services and without warning, the president conducted an exercise called “30 seconds to safety.” At his notice, the congregation was directed to quietly make their way to a secured safe room (the same room, it turns out, where the Kiddush is typically held). Once inside the room, space was secured and all were required to remain absolutely still and quiet.


My first reaction was unsettling, but that was followed by a sense of gratefulness and feeling of security. Here is a community that was not taking chances. 

The experience I had in London has stayed with me. Back in Canada, I would ask myself why we are not taking the threat more seriously. And then the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh happened just over six months ago. I happened to speak in shul that weekend about the responsibility to take proactive steps to educate and buy ourselves precious extra minutes. I have since appealed to our leadership but I feel humoured with a passive shrug. 

What illusions are we under that this cannot happen here? What has to happen for us to take serious steps and act in advance of the unforeseeable, unimaginable, and unpredictable horrible potential for a mass shooting ?

Ask yourself a simple question: are we doing enough to protect ourselves? If the answer is an uncomfortable no, then what are you waiting for?

The warning signs are flashing red. We as a community must endeavour to act responsibly and be proactive to protect those who are attending synagogue. Failing to protect life is a graver sin than any disruption to the Shabbat. This is a serious enough issue that our top leaders should use whatever means are at their disposal to demand that every Jewish gathering place has an approved community security plan in place. It is now a moral responsibility of our leadership.

In a shooter situation, every second you delay the assailant will save lives. We should at least prepare to have a fighting chance. Everyone who attends synagogue should know what to do and where to go. There are precautions that could be put into place very easily and without delay. Here are some common sense things that can be done:

1. A committee of shomrim should be established in each synagogue that rotates in pairs to greet worshippers as they come into shul.

2. The front doors of every synagogue should be secured and locked. If possible a double set of doors should be installed.

3. A rabbinic heter should be issued to allow designated shomrim to carry cellphones on Shabbat so they can call 911 in an emergency.

4. A 30 seconds to safety plan, like the one I witnessed in London, should be put into place. Drills should be performed for all attendees at random times. When there is mayhem, chaos alone can cause loss of life. Just knowing what to do and where to go without thinking saves lives.

There is a great deal we can do right now without the hours of committee deliberations. What is it going to take for us to act today?

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