Guarding the Sanctuary: New Initiative to Provide Protection for Israel's Synagogues
“What we know is that our brothers and sisters in Israel are constantly under attack, and we have an obligation to help out where we can. Raising money isn’t easy. This is a difficult challenge. It’s very important to know that helping this initiative is helping save lives.”
For about the last 15 years or so, Israel has been under frequent attack on various fronts – whether it’s bombings on the street, missiles in the air, rock-throwing, shooting, or vehicular attacks.
While the Iron Dome has been able to intercept Hamas rockets flying over from Gaza, another necessary means of defense – guarding civilians in houses of worship - has been wanting.
This gaping hole in Israel’s civilian defense system tragically came to the fore last autumn, on November 18, 2014, when four rabbis were brutally killed by a terrorist attack on a synagogue in the generally peaceful Har Nof section in West Jerusalem.Two Palestinian terrorists, armed with guns, knives and axes, entered Jerusalem’s Kehilat Bnei Torah synagogue, surprising the dozens of men during the Shaharit prayers, and managing to murder four of them.
Now, two men – Rabbi Godlewskyfrom the United Kingdom and Avi Iferganfrom Israel – have mobilized an initiative to protect Jewish worshippers from the growing wave of global terrorism, an initiative which they hope will receive an outpouring of moral and financial support. Dubbed the Magen Synagogue Safety Initiative, this system involves the stationing of armed guards to secure and protect synagogues from terrorists.
It was only nine months ago that Israelis were last attacked in a synagogue (as of press time), leaving many Israelis and Jews around the world shocked and shaken. By the time police arrived on the scene at the Har Nof synagogue and eliminated the terrorists, four men – three of whom were American rabbis – had tragically lost their lives, and seven were injured. Photographs circulated in the media showed men lying on the floor, still wearing their bloodied tallitot, and siddurim strewn across the floor. The gruesome attack is seared in the minds of many of us, and we must ask ourselves how another such attack could be prevented.
It is hard not to think that if there was an armed, trained security guard with a watchful eye in the vicinity, this tragedy might have been averted.
Six years earlier, another religious institution in Jerusalem was targeted, resulting in a bloody massacre. On March 6, 2008, a Palestinian terrorist stormed into the famed Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav in the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood and began shooting. Eight students were killed, and 11 others wounded, five of them seriously.
“They are Afraid”
The atrocities in Har Nof were the tipping point for Rabbi Godlewsky of Edgware, England, and Avi Ifergan, who decided they could not, and would not, allow Israel’s religious institutions to remain vulnerable.
“We see the suffering and pain of the people of Jerusalem,” said Ifergan. “They are afraid to go to the synagogue and pray in the holy place where they should feel secure and protected.”
The simple solution would be to have an armed guard stationed in every synagogue, but the cost would be well over $3,000 a month per synagogue, according to Ifergan. He noted that in a country where nearly half the population struggles with basic living expenses, and with no government funding, such a system would be financially inviable.
This is the reason behind the creation of the Magen Synagogue Safety Initiative (MSSI), where Ifergan is now the managing director. The initiative’s aimis to train volunteer security guards for synagogues, to maximize security and minimize cost.
“We felt people were extremely vulnerable after the attack, and needed to know and feel something’s being done to keep them safe and secure,” said Ifergan. “We desperately want to protect as many synagogues as possible, to the best of our ability, enabling people to pray securely and not in fear of an attack.”
The project, which is already in progress, trains and licenses one member of every synagogue in the use of firearms, for the purpose of protecting against attack. Each guard is a volunteer to the position, to avoid the high cost of a security contractor.
All members of Magen’s security team undergo an intensive criminal check to ensure they are suitable for the job. They then receive training on the finer details of being a guard: how to communicate with people, how to detect suspicious behavior, the safe way to use a weapon, and what questions to ask.
The one-time cost per synagogue is $5,000, which includes training, emergency procedures, emergency call buttons near the volunteer’s seat in synagogue, and video recording cameras.
These cameras have already come in handy, at least in one Jerusalem synagogue. A synagogue in Har Nof was recently targeted by burglars, who absconded with valuables and expensive equipment. Thankfully, Magen had set up a closed-circuit camera which was directly linked to the security company. The thief was caught, and all the stolen goods were returned.
“We Have an Obligation to Help”
Approved by the government and endorsed by many rabbis, including Rav Yitzhak Yosef, Sephardic Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, this project is well underway - but requires much more funding to be able to protect more synagogues.
“We started with 25 of the main locations where we feel there is more of a threat in Jerusalem,” Ifergan explained. “With help of generous people and their kind donations, we intend to eventually expand to the rest of Israel. Indeed, everywhere is a threat these days.”
Here on our shores, several local community leaders have expressed emphatic support for this vital initiative. One such leader is Rabbi Uziel Admoni of Brooklyn’s Bnai Yosef Congregation, who lauded the efforts of MSSI.
“One thing at the top of our minds is safety and security,” the rabbi says. “What we know is that our brothers and sisters in Israel are constantly under attack, and we have an obligation to help out where we can. Raising money isn’t easy. This is a difficult challenge. It’s very important to know that helping this initiative is helping save lives.”
On the local political level, New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind (Dist. 48) met with Ifergan during a recent visit this spring. “Anytime people set out to protect safety, I’m all for it,” said Hikind. “We must do all we can do defend lives, defend our way of life, and secure the places we gather. Even here in Brooklyn, we’re taking every step we can to ensure safety, and put in place safety measures. In Israel, it’s needed even more. If someone’s determined to cause harm, we might not always be able to stop them, but we are making it very difficult for them to succeed.”
With Hashem’s help – and with ours – in coming weeks, months, and years, Israeli synagogues will be more secure and better prepared to protect themselves against threats – and Israeli worshippers will feel confident knowing that tragedies like the attack at Kehilat Bnei Torah will never again repeat themselves.
For more information about the Magen Synagogue Safety Initiative, please visit