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Protecting our right to pray safely

Faith leaders play many roles for their congregants. Now one of those roles is security guard.

Congregation Beth Israel synagogue on Jan. 16, in Colleyville, Texas, where a gunman took four people hostage. All four people escaped; the gunman died.Brandon Bell/Getty

My mom is an easy person to find on a Saturday morning. As a congregational rabbi, she has spent every Saturday since I was a child leading her congregation in prayer. On other days, she will lead interfaith groups, teach Hebrew school, and help families through life cycle events such as births and weddings. Since the coronavirus pandemic started, she has seen her congregants through more loss than ever before. Like many faith leaders, my mom plays many roles to meet the spiritual needs of her synagogue. Unfortunately, in more recent years, she has also taken on a new role, not covered during her rabbinic training 25 years ago. That is security guard, protecting the physical safety of her congregation.

The 2018 Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh was a painful experience for Jews around the world. As a people who have faced persecution for centuries, we have never given ourselves permission to feel completely safe, wherever we are. Sadly, there is growing antisemitism, hatred, and danger all around us — in our schools, our children’s sports teams, our workplaces, our cemeteries, and, most at risk, our places of worship.


For many weeks after the Tree of Life shooting, I contemplated in excruciating detail what would happen if a gunman walked into our synagogue. With great thanks to our local police department, we have implemented enhanced security procedures over the past few years. One such measure is that the doors to the sanctuary are always left open. That is to allow my mom to have a direct line of sight to the exterior doors of the building. If a gunman enters, my mom would know before anyone. For a long time, I wasn’t sure which was worse, that my mom would know first or that my dad, sitting with his back to the door, might not know in time.


When I first heard the news about the hostage crisis at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, on Saturday, my thoughts immediately went to the family of Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker. His wife and children would be watching the events unfold, praying that he was prepared to be both rabbi and hero. Thankfully, he was. As with every crisis at a house of worship, I couldn’t help but imagine what my mother would do in a similar situation. Terrified as she might be, I know she would still be the rabbi and leader her congregants needed her to be.

A faith leader’s sacred dedication to service should not cost them their life.

To ensure that every member of a faith community can pray in safety, here are steps every house of worship should take:

▪ Coordinate with local authorities and first responders to develop a safety plan.

▪ Add security cameras to parking lots, hallways, and entrances that can be used by law enforcement to monitor an active threat and possibly help prevent someone from entering the building.

▪ Install a button on the chair or lectern of the faith leader that can be used to alert law enforcement to threats.

▪ Hire or train people to monitor entrances during events.

▪ Hold active shooter and other safety training sessions for your members.

In Massachusetts, we have a Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which provides grants for vital security enhancements at houses of worship, community centers, and other institutions at heightened risk of violence. As vice president of the board of directors of the Jewish Community Relations Council, I’m proud of how the organized Jewish community has advocated for funding for this critical program and encourage everyone to call their elected officials to ask for their support.


We also need to strengthen the bonds between faith groups and invest in the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization and other interfaith organizations across the state. We are louder and stronger when we advocate together for our collective right to worship safely.

Sunday was National Religious Freedom Day, a day that we commit to protecting the freedom of people of all faiths to practice their religion. I hope that one day my mom can stand in front of her congregation without fear. On Saturday, we stood together with Congregation Beth Israel in prayer. We must now stand together in action.

Samantha Joseph is the vice president of the board of directors of the Jewish Community Relations Council.