Nothing sacred: Houses of worship beef up security

Construction at Congregation Beth Israel will beautify its space—and improve security. EZE AMOS Construction at Congregation Beth Israel will beautify its space—and improve security. EZE AMOS

Pittsburgh. Christchurch. Charleston. The list of communities devastated by mass murderers continues to grow, as the past weekend attests. And houses of worship have found that nothing is sacred to those determined to target people of certain religions or races.

Congregation Beth Israel realized that the weekend of August 12, 2017, when neo-Nazis marched through UVA Grounds chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” and past the synagogue intoning, “Sieg Heil.”

Alan Zimmerman, the synagogue’s former president, stood outside during services that weekend with an armed guard. A year later, after an anti-Semitic gunman killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue, Zimmerman wrote in USA Today, “I’d like to say I’m shocked at the shooting of Jews in Pittsburgh, but I’m not. Given what I saw in Charlottesville, it seems an inevitable tragedy.”

Mark Heller lives near the Charlottesville synagogue, and walking by recently, he noticed architectural plans titled, “Security upgrades for Congregation Beth Israel.” He saw a “new deep trench with a lot of rebar.”

Work is going on to replace a fence and beautify the front, says Diane Hillman, president of Congregation Beth Israel’s board. The upgrades will also “improve the security of the space,” which houses a preschool and kindergarten.

The trench and rebar Heller saw are for a bench for people to sit on that matches the steps, says Hillman, and she says the fence going up “is definitely not a wall.” Hillman declines to say how much the synagogue spends on armed guards, but “it’s significant.”

Given the times we live in, “It’s wise,” she says. “I know everyone is improving security.”

According to the Department of Homeland Security, Congregation Beth Israel received a 2018 grant from DHS’ Nonprofit Security Grant Program.

The Islamic Society of Central Virginia is also stepping up its security after a couple of incidents during Ramadan in May. In one, two congregation members said a car tried to target them as they walked from the mosque, says Saad Hussain, the organization’s outreach coordinator.

The mosque set up a GoFundMe account to beef up security “because of some recent events in Charlottesville the past few years,” he says. The facility has seen an increase in the number of people attending youth programs and daycare, and “the building is used more often during the day.”

A big difference compared to other religious centers is “the mosque is a place of worship where Muslims come to pray five times a day,” says Hussain. “Accessibility is very important.”

The Islamic Society of Central Virginia now has a police presence during its services and the nights of Ramadan. It has increased camera coverage, improved locks with swipe access for members, and consulted with law enforcement about what needs upgrading in the building, says Hussain. “We’re not going to take any chances with security.”

Other local houses of worship did not return phone calls from C-VILLE or declined to comment. First Baptist Church on Park Street recently held an event on church security conducted by Albemarle police Sergeant Gary Pistulka, who had not responded by press time.

“It’s a sad testament to our times,” says Heller. It’s disheartening every school in the United States has to have security guards. It’s disheartening to see this happening in a house of worship. I’m uncomfortable with it. I understand it, but I’m uncomfortable with it.”

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