By Larry Gordon
In Israel, it is not unusual to be standing on line for a falafel with the young man or woman next to you doing the same—but with an M‑16 automatic weapon slung over their shoulder. It is a common sight to be davening at the Kotel or a local shul on any day of the week—or Shabbos, for that matter—with the guy next to you swaying in prayer with a pistol in a holster fastened to his belt.
But that is Israel, where such things have just about always been the reality. What about here in the United States? Specifically, the Jewish community in New York is a potential target for those seeking to disrupt and threaten the safety and security that we have once again grown accustomed to in this post-9/11 world.
With international security what it currently is, and in the aftermath of the attacks in Paris, Belgium, and San Bernardino, the knifing assaults in Israel, and the massacre a bit over a year ago at a shul in Har Nof, we have all become more conscious of the need to protect our shuls and communities.
The police in New York do an outstanding job, and that includes the Nassau County Police Department. The police want to protect us as residents and they want to protect the sanctity of and provide safety in our shuls and institutions. Admittedly, they are shorthanded and limited in what they can do by virtue of budgetary constraints.
So as it happens, here in the Five Towns, and most likely in similar communities around the world, there are gun owners who are licensed to carry weapons—most often pistols—as a way of providing added protection for whatever locations they might frequent. Over the last several years, it has become a practice in some shuls for the rabbis to ask in some cases, or respond in the positive when asked, about the possibility or the need for those licensed to carry guns to do so on Shabbos.
To that end, some shuls have one or two men with carry permits who now bring their guns to shul, while in other larger shuls there can be as many as ten people carrying on any given Shabbos. Har Nof is a classic example of a shul that found itself helpless. The terrorists who attacked that shul knew that the type of men who assembled there each morning were not the type to carry weapons. This story alone is enough of a catalyst to make certain that there is not a shul anywhere that is so vulnerable and defenseless in the future.
While some of our shuls provide armed plainclothes private security guards—usually off-duty police officers— primarily on Shabbos, other shuls simply are not big enough or do not have the budget to do so. We were told last year that in Far Rockaway, a police car passes by the local shuls at least two times per eight-hour shift. It’s a good thing to have our religious institutions under some kind of organized monitoring and surveillance, but it is hardly enough should a problem arise.
And then there is the matter currently playing itself out in Brooklyn, where an Orthodox Jewish young man with ties to the de Blasio administration was indicted and charged with bribing officials in order to secure gun permits from the appropriate office in the police department. For guns to be carried by people who paid for permits without proper training or licensing poses a serious danger to everyone. There is no replacement for following guidelines and regulations in order to secure a proper gun permit.
The extensive publicity about the Brooklyn gun case has cast somewhat of a pall over the frum community over the last few weeks. Suddenly, thanks to the New York Post, the impression was created that frum Jews have gone gun-crazy. This is the furthest thing from the truth.
It did not help to alleviate this misperception when seven police officers from the license-enforcement division of the Nassau County Police Department arrived at a major Woodmere shul on a recent Shabbos morning looking to investigate a tip that some congregants may have been carrying guns without the proper permits. Both Long Island Newsday and the Nassau Herald reported that the arrival of the officers at the shul was a “raid” to find illegal guns. Those present at the shul with direct knowledge of the event rejected outright that this was or was intended to be a raid, as the general press misstated, intentionally sensationalized, or mischaracterized what took place.
Chief Steven Skrynecki of the Nassau County Police Department told the 5TJT that the arrival at the shul of the officers at a time when services were under way on a Shabbos morning was “a misunderstanding that was not intended to disrupt the services.” He said that the investigation “had nothing to do with the temple but was strictly about a gun-permit matter.”
Shortly after the incident, Town of Hempstead Councilman Bruce Blakeman arranged and attended a meeting between police and community members. He said there was a history to the matter of the Shabbos-morning Woodmere visit. According to Blakeman, a complaint was lodged with police when members of the Woodmere Fire Department were brandishing guns in the firehouse a few days prior, and a bystander or another volunteer firefighter thought that the weapons were being handled in an unsafe manner. Some of these same people attend the shul in Woodmere. A complaint was phoned in to the police which resulted in the questioning of members of the security team outside the Woodmere shul.
Everything was found to be in order with the individual gun permits at the shul, but some were put off by the optics of the event and questioned whether the police would have acted similarly at a mosque on a Friday or at a church on a Sunday morning. Others, including Councilman Blakeman, said what occurred had to be viewed in the context of the ongoing press reports pertaining to the illicit acquiring of gun permits for members of the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn.
In response to the media mischaracterization as a “raid,” the rabbi of the shul told us, “Nothing happened. There was no ‘raid.’ Police never entered any of our premises and no one was patted down.” He said that reporting this any other way was a pure indulgence in sensationalism.
While at present there is some tension between some leaders of the Boro Park community involved in the ongoing investigation of bribe-taking, junkets, and other perks being offered to high-ranking police officers, the overall relationship between police and the leadership is excellent, and it serves the interests of all involved for it to remain that way. And that is particularly true here in Nassau County. Police and political leaders know and understand that there is no more law-abiding community than the Orthodox Jewish community.
If there are guns present in shuls, they are there legally, with proper permits in place, to protect and defend the members of the shul should an incident arise.
Yehuda Dafna, a resident of Woodmere, is the owner of a security agency—Israel Security Services—an organization that has done security work at airports and for airlines for many years. He is a gun owner and an advocate for legal gun ownership, a right provided by the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States—the right to bear arms.
There is a sense out there, he says, that we should be less inclined to promote the idea of gun ownership for safety reasons and leave the security to the police. But he says that he knows that if, G‑d forbid, something happens, questions will be asked about why we were not more proactive in assisting the already overburdened police, who can only do so much. That is why, he says, we are better off being proactive now rather than waiting to second-guess ourselves later. And he adds that many more people die every year in this country as a result of being stabbed, but there is no movement or attempt to outlaw knives.
Over the years, I’ve attended police meetings in the Five Towns with the heads of the department. The constantly reiterated message is that the police resources are stretched to the maximum and that they have no choice but to focus on high-crime areas and the drug scourge that has invaded Nassau County over the last few years.
So what is our choice—to hope for the best or try to do something about it by assisting the police in a lawful manner? It might be most prudent to do both. v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.