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Free to Pray

Congregations mull how to keep sacred places safe

A few bouquets of flowers rest under a tree at the edge of the block of the Tree of Life Synagogue Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, in Pittsburgh. Eleven people were killed and six others injured in a shooting during services there a week ago. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

By DANA MASSING

Erie Times-News

RIE — Eleven killed at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, in October.

Twenty-six slain at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in November 2017.

Seven fatally shot at Quebec Islamic Cultural Center in Quebec, Canada, in January 2017.

Nine gunned down at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015.

Six dead at Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in August 2012.

Houses of worship are usually places of refuge, but in recent years they’ve also become sites of carnage. Erie hasn’t experienced a mass shooting in a church, temple, mosque or other place of worship, but the threat is real to local congregations. And they’re responding. Security cameras, locked doors and people armed with guns are ways Erie-area congregations have reacted.

“We just can’t afford to have people come here and shoot us all up,” said the Rev. Dale Snyder Sr., pastor of Erie’s St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church, where the doors are locked after worship begins on Sunday mornings.

Since the Pittsburgh shooting, the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history, both of Erie’s Jewish congregations have upped their security, although leaders were hesitant to reveal details.

“We have engaged security and we’re looking into what else we need to do,” said Doris Pinski, president of Brith Sholom, Erie’s Conservative Jewish congregation.

She said the synagogue, which sold its land and building to the Jefferson Educational Society in 2013, but continues to hold worship in part of the building, has always locked the door to the lobby once a service starts.

Pinski said the members, who are mostly older and number fewer than 100, haven’t appeared hesitant to attend worship since the Pittsburgh shooting. Some of the victims were known to Erie’s Jewish community and the rabbi who serves Brith Sholom comes from Pittsburgh.

The attack was sad and a reflection on the world, where such incidents occur not only in churches and synagogues, Pinski said.

“This should be the safe place for everyone,” she said. “It should be a place of emotional and spiritual refuge.”

Edie Joseph, president of the congregation at Temple Anshe Hesed, the Erie area’s Reform Jewish congregation, said: “We have increased our security. It is inevitable. It’s a sign of the times, unfortunately.”

Joseph said Anshe Hesed, which celebrated the opening of its new building in Millcreek Township less than two months before the Tree of Life shooting, already had state-of-the-art security cameras installed and kept its doors locked. Now, she said, the temple added tools that can be used to break out windows and taught members how to use them in case they need to escape a shooter.

Armed security guards are hired to attend worship services and other events, Joseph said.

Joseph said having to pay tens of thousands of dollars a year for guards is difficult for a small congregation like Anshe Hesed, which has about 150 families. The money wasn’t written into the budget and temple leaders are looking for grants and at adding an additional fee for members, Joseph said.

But she said she thinks members, overall, are happy with the security efforts.

“I know they feel much safer having an armed security,” she said.

While the Pittsburgh shooting was the latest and the closest to home for Erie-area congregations, many were already thinking about security before the 2018 massacre.

The Rev. John Downey, dean of Erie’s Episcopal Cathedral of St. Paul, said his church hasn’t made recent changes to security measures, some of which have been in place for about a decade. They include security cameras and a hired security person who watches the doors during Sunday services.

Downey said the cathedral has so far resisted putting up barriers to people by locking doors during the day, except if only one or two staff members are present.

“We’re the kind of place that gets walk-ins,” he said.

But he understands sites that have locked their doors.

At Almakarim Islamic Foundation, also in Erie, nothing was changed as a result of the Pittsburgh shooting.

Sheikh Mazin Alsahlani said his building already had a security camera and there are plans to look at more options for the foundation that has so far felt comfortable in the city for more than 20 years.

“We are safe, that’s what we feel,” Alsahlani said.

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