Balancing security and community: Norfolk synagogue reacts to antisemitic Texas attack

·4 min read

One Norfolk synagogue is working to strike a balance between hospitality and safety in the wake of a hostage situation last weekend at a Texas synagogue.

Security has long been a part of services at Ohef Shalom Temple, one of Norfolk’s largest synagogues. Guards stand on duty during every worship service. Surveillance cameras monitor every door, which roughly 700 families filtered through before the pandemic limited in-person services.

“The Jewish community does not think twice about having security,” said Rabbi Rosalin Mandelberg. “This is a reality we live with day in and day out. It is a way of life.”

But the 11-hour standoff at Congregation Beth Israel in suburban Dallas has renewed attention on security by Jewish congregations amid a nationwide increase in antisemitic incidents.

The gunman, a 44-year-old British citizen, was killed as federal agents stormed the temple. The rabbi credited his congregation’s active shooter training for the escape of the four people held hostage, including himself.

In the wake of the incident, Mandelberg said her clergy felt the need to immediately send a letter to their congregation acknowledging the trauma the Jewish community felt as a whole.

“The biggest way we tried to make our congregation feel safe is by reaching out,” Mandelberg said. “Strength comes from being together. We told them, ‘Don’t allow the haters to win. Live your Jewish lives most fully and proudly.’”

In the letter, Mandelberg and her clergy reassured members that Ohef Sholom Temple was secure.

“I cannot disclose specifically security measures, but I can say that every measure possible to control access to the building is in place,” Mandelberg said.

The Hampton Roads Jewish community has about 10,000 members, according to Robin Mancoll, who oversees the Jewish Community Relations Council for the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater.

“Antisemitism is a problem, but we are fortunate in that the local Jewish community has great relationships with other communities,” Mancoll said. “Hampton Roads has a strong faith-based community — whether that be the Black community, the Catholic community — and each subcommunity is very inclusive.”

The Anti-Defamation League tracked 325 antisemitic or white supremacist incidents across Virginia in 2020 and 2021 — 20 occurred in Hampton Roads.

To better protect the Jewish community as it worships and attends area synagogues, UJFT joined with the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond and the United Jewish Community of the Virginia Peninsula to partner with the national Secure Community Network to enhance local security programs in 2020. The network is a nonprofit organization that provides real-time threat assessments, security vulnerability assessments and security training.

“Synagogues have to be prepared because of where we are today. All our synagogues have relationships with local law enforcement departments and state agencies,” Mancoll said.

Mandelberg said “armed security is a reality in every synagogue of the world,” but added that “it is hard to balance hospitality and keeping us safe.”

Mandelberg encourages Ohef Sholom members, and all members of the Jewish community, to be aware of their surroundings, speak with security if they notice a suspicious person and to avoid gathering in the parking lots after services.

“We know this is where the most important business of Temple is conducted, but all kidding aside, please keep your post-meeting meetings inside our protected building, and once you leave, go directly to your cars,” Mandelberg wrote in the letter to her congregation.

One member of Ohef Sholom Temple said the disruption of peace upset him most about the Texas attack.

“We go to synagogues to gain peace, to gain community. It is a calming experience for me,” Robert Levinson said. “It feels like no matter where it happens, it is a personal attack.”

Levinson said he has chosen to “be part of the solution” in the fight against antisemitism by taking part in Ohef Sholom Temple’s security drills and reminding others to speak up if they see a suspicious person.

“Antisemitism is out there. I am 62 years old, and I have been Jewish my whole life. You just have to deal with it,” Levinson said. “And if we stop going to worship, the terrorists have won. I am just not going to do that.”

Caitlyn Burchett, caitlyn.burchett@virginiamedia.com