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Rabbi Dan Rodkin says thoughts and prayers will not save his congregation from an attack on their house of worship.
Amid a rise in hate crimes against Jewish people across the United States, Shaloh House — the Brighton synagogue the rabbi leads — has been improving safety measures with security cameras, reinforced glass windows, even panic buttons.
Despite these efforts, Rodkin worries a gunman might still get inside the synagogue and shoot his members.
"We can't think, 'I'm just praying, and God will save me,' " Rodkin says. "No, we need to take care of situations ourselves."
Now, the rabbi is asking his own congregation to bring guns to Shabbat.
And several of Rodkin's synagogue members — most of them former soldiers and retired cops — are answering his plea, coming armed to daily and holiday services. Others are applying for gun licenses with letters of recommendation from their rabbi.
Rodkin says he will get a gun, too, and wants to organize training for the new gun owners.
"I know it sounds horrible, but I think it's a very logical approach for the situation we're in," he says. "I don't want people to have guns. But I think to protect our families, it's a necessity now."
Rodkin began to seriously consider an attack on his congregation after the fatal attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. That congregation had prepared for an active shooter situation with drills, but a gunman still managed to kill 11 people inside their building last year. Rodkin then worried his own synagogue's safety plan would not save lives.
In April, a woman died in a shooting at a synagogue in Poway, California. The gunman's weapon jammed during the attack, and an off-duty officer in the building shot back. Rodkin says he thought that officer's gun prevented more casualties.
Rodkin adds that while he doesn't think his house of worship is in any immediate danger at a time when school shootings are more common, his congregation members should be prepared.
Neal Gold, president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis, says he doesn't agree with Rodkin but understands his concerns over security.
"I understand the impulse of this rabbi who says we want to bring more weapons into the community, because we can't breathe right now," says Gold.
In the U.S., the last two years saw the highest number of anti-Semitic incidents in a decade, according to a report from the Anti-Defamation League. Just this year in Massachusetts, swastikas have been carved into students' desks, and two different Jewish houses of worship were both set ablaze in the same week. Police have not yet caught the arsonist.
In response, some Jewish institutions are heightening their security. At Newton Centre Minyan, Gold says he walks past security guards on Shabbat morning.
"We were living on blessed time before, but conversations are happening now that we have to be aware of who is coming through our doors," says Gold. "Now, we find ourselves asking: 'What does this mean for the Jewish community in America?' "
Gold adds Jewish people are struggling with the burgeoning tension between their own safety and the spiritual tenet of openness, or "welcoming the stranger."
Rabbi Rodkin says he wants to respect that tenet, but says his priorities are clear.
"In Judaism, life is the most sacred thing. Political correctness is important, too, but not as important as a life," he says. "So I think whatever it takes to save a life, it is the most important task."
Rodkin is not alone in this logic, says Jeremy Yamin, director of security and operations at Combined Jewish Philanthropies.
Yamin works with synagogues to develop safety plans, and he says rabbis and other Jews have been asking if they should carry guns in light of the recent attacks.
Yamin tells them the decision isn't a simple one.
"We're talking about the worst situation that anyone could imagine. Federal agents and police officers spend an entire career training for something like this," says Yamin, who previously worked as an agent for the State Department.
"If the decision to have a gun is simple, you probably shouldn't have it," he adds.
If an active shooter enters a house of worship, even someone trained with a gun would face tough decisions, he says. Choices like: Will they go looking through the building for the shooter? What will they do if they hit someone else? What happens if the gunman shoots them first?
And shooting someone, Yamin adds, is a difficult act.
Rabbi Rodkin says he's not certain he could act in the moment of a shooting.
"This is all in God's hands," says Rodkin. "I think people who are trained will be better than I, I think. But you never know until you are placed in that situation."
This segment aired on June 24, 2019.
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