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Midwest synagogues focusing anew on security and safety

Matt Rourke
A makeshift memorial stands outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Monday, Oct. 29, 2018 in the aftermath of a deadly shooting at the synagogue.

Temples throughout the Midwest are focusing on what they can do to ensure the safety of their communities with a new sense of urgency. This comes after a gunman held people hostage in a Texas synagogue for ten hours.

The American Jewish Committee (AJC), a global Jewish advocacy organization that combats antisemitism across the world, also works at a local level. Sarah van Loon, the Midwest regional director, covers nine states: Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North and South Dakota and parts of Michigan.

She said even though the event happened in Texas, it still hit close to home. The Jewish community in the U.S. is small, she explained, so it's likely people in her region either knew the people in Texas affected, or knew a friend of a friend who did.

van Loon said she and her colleagues have seen a rise of antisemitism, maybe not worse than in years past, but a prevalence nonetheless. She said she encourages Midwest Jewish communities to implement all recommended safety precautions.

“Even though we're in a pandemic, and a lot of things are still virtual. We can't, unfortunately, take the luxury of resting on that," she said.

van Loon encouraged all states within her region to have working relationships with local law enforcement. Part of her job is to help facilitate those relationships and with elected officials who can further influence safety laws. Making sure communication is strong, she explained, will make sure communities are ready to respond to safety concerns.

“We regularly have multiple layers of security, we have security training, there are security barriers, not to mention the high holidays when there are active, armed guards standing outside of our houses of worship because being Jewish in America, unfortunately, is not the safest activity," she said. "There are unfortunately, people out there who hate the Jews for no reason other than hatred. There's, frankly, no way to explain it or to excuse it."

In recent years, some Iowa synagogue's have been vandalized.

On top of urging federal and local officials to take action for safety in places of worship, the AJC emphasized ensuring safety in the Jewish community is important for everyone, not just Jewish people.

"Antisemitism may uniquely impact the Jewish community, but it's a disease for our society. And when left unchecked, that's where you start to see hate growing elsewhere. Often when hate starts in the Jewish community, it doesn't end in the Jewish community, it impacts other minority communities," van Loon said.

Further, she added, antisemitism can have a dire affect on a democracy. That's why she has been working to promote the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism because knowing what hate crimes are can help better address the solutions. It can also help communities better report antisemitic acts.

According to the FBI’s 2020 hate crime statistics more than half of religious bias crimes in 2020 were against Jews. The AJC has said it is troubled by these statistics, but van Loon pointed out hate crimes are most likely underreported.

The AJC also working on implementing a federal taskforce to combat antisemitism across the country.

Kassidy was a reporter based in Des Moines