After Saturday morning’s mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue that killed at least 11 people and wounded at least six others, South Florida law enforcement agencies plan to step up patrols at synagogues and other houses of worship.
“As a matter of policy we do not discuss our specific security measures. That said, we are working closely with our religious institutions and have taken extra security measures out of an abundance of caution,” Miami Beach Police Chief Daniel Oates said in a statement.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott directed Florida Highway Patrol to enhance patrols at places of worship throughout the state following the shooting in Pittsburgh.
According to reports, the Pittsburgh gunman, identified as Robert Bowers, walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill and yelled, “All Jews must die,” and began his rampage.
Local Jewish institutions reacted with a sense of urgency.
“Today’s cowardly attack reminds us how our world remains a dangerous place,” said Michael Balaban, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Broward County. “We continue to work with law enforcement to secure and keep our community safe ... Hate and anti-Semitism is increasingly ever present and we will not accept that this is a new normal and we must band together.”
Mitchell Tapper, director of security for the Jewish Federation of Broward County, stressed the need for vigilance.
“You can’t let your guard down,” Tapper said.
As time passes between mass shootings — like at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February or last October at a country music festival in Las Vegas — “People have the tendency to get into a safe mode after weeks and months pass ... become complacent,” Tapper said.
While there is no “actionable intelligence to suggest a threat at this time” in a local sense, Tapper said the Federation will be diligent in securing its properties. He asked that temple executives and rabbis increase their vigilance — “not to cause a panic” — but as a matter of course.
“It is imperative that doors that are supposed to be closed and locked remain so at all times,” Tapper told staff and congregants in an email. “Please do not hold normally secured doors open while you are entering or leaving a building for individuals whom you do not know. A closed and locked door is an obstacle for someone who wishes to commit a crime and allows extra time for security and/or law enforcement to respond.”
Saturday’s shooting was a “stark reminder of increased worldwide anti-Semitism,” said the Greater Miami Jewish Federation in a statement to the Miami Herald, citing data from the Anti-Defamation League that shows an almost 60-percent uptick in reported anti-Semitic incidents in 2017 compared to a year before.
“It is vital to remain vigilant and immediately report any suspicious activities to authorities,” the organization said. “May we all recommit ourselves to work for the day where all bigotry and hatred are eliminated from our world and our lives.”
The group said it was grateful that local law enforcement would be increasing patrols at places of worship in Miami-Dade County.
After the suspect had been captured in Pittsburgh, President Trump told reporters gathered at Andrews Air Force Base that the outcome might have been different if the synagogue “had some kind of protection” from an armed guard. Trump suggested that it might be a good idea for all churches and synagogues to do so, the Associated Press reported.
Some South Florida synagogues already do that, especially during High Holy Days, but it varies by venue, both Tapper and Jacob Solomon, president and CEO of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, said.
“That’s based on budgets,” Tapper said. “Things like locking doors doesn’t cost money. People have the tendency to be too courteous and people have to be conscious.”
But that doesn’t mean locking congregants out of services and scrapping an inviting tradition.
“Unless you have someone in the lobby acting as a door monitor who is somewhat trained, how do you not have an inviting [service]?” Tapper said. “How do you balance that out? It’s terrible we have to live in this world — keeping doors locked.”
Alan Sataloff, CEO of the Michael-Ann Russell JCC near North Miami Beach, said the JCC stands with the Tree of Life Synagogue. “Our hearts go out to everyone effected. Security at the Michael-Ann Russell JCC is our utmost concern.”
Sataloff said the JCC will ask its members to show their membership IDs whenever requested. Non-members and visitors will be required to present a valid government issued I.D.
“We will continue to monitor the situation as we are in constant communications with updates from our local authorities,” Sataloff said in a statement.
At Temple Israel of Greater Miami, Sunday’s religious school and two planned programs will go on as planned, said Julia Zaias, Temple Israel’s president, and Scott Brockman, the temple’s executive director. But the temple arranged to have an extra layer of protection for its grounds.
An extra officer will be on duty from open to close and only the temple’s Brown Patio entrance will be used for entry for everyone, Temple Israel’s Zaias and Brockman said in a message to the congregation. “Our congregational family not only takes care of each other spiritually, but we also look out for each others’ safety and security.”
Saturday’s massacre was a renewed call for concern but, unfortunately, it’s one of a growing number of incidents nationwide.
“We’re not starting from a dead stop on this,” Solomon said. “We’re very focused on security the last few years.”
Solomon said the Greater Miami Jewish Federation has worked closely with Brenda Moxley, the Federation’s director of community security. The Federation also works with security officers at local synagogues, schools and other agencies in training, consulting and preparedness.
“Miami is blessed blessed to have responsible law enforcement,” Solomon said. “Law enforcement at the local and national level have responded to our concerns.
“It’s hard to say if there’s a new reality but it’s one based on a very old story of anti-Semitism,” Solomon added. “We are living in a time when it’s increasing in a rather dramatic scale. We have to be aware of it and make sure we are trained and ready.”
Miami Herald Staff Writer Martin Vassolo contributed to this report