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How U.S. synagogues have been thinking about their safety since the Hamas attacks

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Jews in America live thousands of miles from the Hamas terrorist attacks, but fears for their safety here in the U.S. are very real. Think of the Pittsburgh synagogue murders back in 2018 or the taking of hostages at a Texas synagogue just last year. NPR religion correspondent Jason DeRose reports on balancing security efforts with a desire to remain welcoming and hopeful.

JASON DEROSE, BYLINE: At Adat Ari El in suburban Los Angeles, Senior Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei stands in his synagogue's parking lot, gesturing to the more visible safety measures.

BRIAN SCHULDENFREI: And there's this large iron gate next to a security booth, and there's a big blue and white banner that says (speaking Hebrew), which means welcome in Hebrew. But before you come in, please make sure to check in with security. That's the reality of our lives.

DEROSE: A reality that weighs heavy on the hearts of the 600 families who attend services and send their kids to school here. On Friday, Schuldenfrei noticed one mother in particular walking through this parking lot.

SCHULDENFREI: She brought her kid to school, and she was scared, and her hand was shaking. And, you know, I just grasped it. We would not be welcoming to her if we didn't have security.

DEROSE: To keep the region's 500 synagogues both safe and welcoming, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles launched its Community Security Initiative over a decade ago.

LARRY MEAD: I probably haven't had a good night's sleep since starting on the 6.

DEROSE: Larry Mead heads the initiative. It includes a 24/7 intelligence and threat analysis unit, active shooter trainings and security consultations at synagogues, schools and other Jewish institutions. Mead's in regular contact with the LAPD, the LA sheriff, the FBI and the many other regional Jewish federations across the country.

MEAD: It's not in a vacuum here in Los Angeles. It's worldwide, and we have to talk to each other. So it's about information sharing. If we're not sharing information, we don't know what's going on.

DEROSE: While there are no current credible threats, law enforcement in the region says they've increased patrols in neighborhoods with large Jewish and Muslim populations. That's information Cynthia Barzilai takes seriously as executive director of Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica, a congregation and school that serves about 200 families.

CYNTHIA BARZILAI: We are a smaller community, so we don't have a full-time security guard, but we've taken measures. We have new, updated cameras and monitors and intercom systems. We have blast-proof windows.

ALEX KRESS: It's hard to express how to be a Jew, even in 2023, is to be scared to be too public.

DEROSE: Alex Kress is Beth Shir Shalom's rabbi. He says it's an excruciating time for his congregation, for him and for Jews around the world. But he finds hope in a recent Torah portion - the creation story from the opening verses of Genesis.

KRESS: What is God creating from this term, (speaking Hebrew) - this void, this darkness, this chaos? And the first creation is light. And what does God say? That the light is good. Even in these moments of horrible depths of depravity and darkness, the light is good, and we have to find the light.

DEROSE: Rabbi Kress reminds his congregation there is still joy in life, still the peace of Sabbath, despite sorrow, despite fear, despite the armed guard at the synagogue door. Jason DeRose, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF J DILLA'S "REQUIEM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jason DeRose
Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.