A bouquet of flowers laying next to the entrance steps to Shaloh House

Dialogue

Carrying Guns to Synagogue?

Flowers were left in front of the Shaloh House, a Jewish day school in Brighton, Massachusetts, after Rabbi Shlomo Noginski, a Hebrew teacher at Shaloh House, was stabbed eight times in an anti-Semitic attack. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

By Robert Israel

Lake Street cuts through the bustling suburban neighborhoods of Arlington and Belmont. At Massachusetts Avenue and Lake, it’s a 20-minute bus ride to the Harvard campus. Heavily populated, it seems an unlikely locale for anti-Semitic attacks. Yet that is exactly what took place here two years ago.

The target was the Chabad Center at 129 Lake Street. Once a convalescent home, it now doubles as a Jewish house of worship and as the residence of my neighbors, Rabbi Avi Bukiet (MTS ’17), his wife Luna, and their five children. In May 2019, arsonists tried twice—and failed—to torch the place. And an hour after the second Arlington fire—less than a week after the first attempt—a third fire was set at another Chabad Center, in Needham, an hour away.1

“It’s been quiet here lately,” Rabbi Bukiet tells me. He’s not talking about the socially distanced hush that was imposed on all our communities since the outbreak of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.2 Rather, he is referring to another pandemic: the insidious virus of anti-Semitism.

The arson attacks two years ago were thwarted. There were no casualties, even though both families—the Bukiets (in Arlington) and the Krinskys (in Needham)—were at home during the attacks. Property damages were minor. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) continues to work the case in concert with the Arlington and Needham police. Yet, despite a well-publicized reward of $20,000 put forth from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and the Massachusetts Fire Marshal’s office for information leading to their arrest and conviction, the culprits remain at large.

“The FBI is tight-lipped about the status of their investigations,” Rabbi Bukiet tells me. “It seems we were targeted by a white supremacist group.”

The ADL, which conducts an annual national audit, reported a 12 percent increase in 2019 over the previous year, culminating in 2,100 acts of anti-Semitic hate, with a 56 percent increase in property damage, assaults, and five fatalities.

There have been numerous media reports about the increased activities of white supremacists, though it’s the destructive rampages that get the most press. Jews, among others, are targets. In Massachusetts alone, according to local law enforcement reports, there were 144 reported hate crime incidents against Jews in 2018, representing a 131 percent increase between 2014 and 2017. The ADL, which conducts an annual national audit, reported a 12 percent increase in 2019 over the previous year, culminating in 2,100 acts of anti-Semitic hate, with a 56 percent increase in property damage, assaults, and five fatalities.3

In 2019, author Bari Weiss wrote about her struggles to comprehend how, in her hometown of Pittsburgh, a gunman could open fire and murder 11 of her co-religionists at the Tree of Life synagogue on October 27, 2018, and how, six months after that horrific incident, another gunman could open fire using an AR-17 rifle at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in California, murdering a congregant.4 How could hatred against Jews take place in the United States, she asked, where Jews have historically enjoyed freedom to live and to worship?

“The Jewish community,” she pleaded, “2 percent of America’s population, cannot go at this problem alone. We have to insist that the societies of which we are a part take a stand against anti-Semitism, because any society in which it flourishes is one that is dead or dying.”

Shortly following the arson incidents, the Arlington community did just that: they came together in a public rally. I live near the center of town, a short walk from the public high school. I began noticing a plethora of signs on the front lawns of my neighbors’ homes, declaring, “Love Thy Neighbor,” and “Hate Has No Home Here.” This was followed by notices in the town’s weekly newspaper and broadsides posted on community bulletin boards and stapled to telephone poles trumpeting the solidarity event at Arlington Town Hall.

On the day of the rally, I alighted from the local bus on Massachusetts Avenue after work and found an overflow crowd of my neighbors crammed into Town Hall. The walls were decorated with messages and hand-painted drawings by Arlington public schoolchildren. One speaker after another decried the Lake Street and Needham arson incidents and urged the community to fight back.5 Standing onstage after linking arms and joining the others in a rousing chorus of song, Rabbi Bukiet addressed the overflow crowd, telling them, “The moral consciousness, that universal love for humanity has shined bright and I am completely overwhelmed by what I see in front of me.” He was greeted by applause.

Yet two years later, the meeting—and the applause—is a memory. Rabbi Bukiet’s voice has taken on a more somber tone.

“I can’t be naive anymore,” says Rabbi Bukiet, who grew up in nearby Lexington. “I thought over here [in the United States], it was different and I have to realize, no, it’s not different.”

These past two years there has been a rash of anti-Semitic incidents in Massachusetts: swastikas and anti-Jewish graffiti spray-painted on bathroom stalls in public schools in Newton; a Jewish cemetery defaced in Fall River; vandalism at the New England Holocaust Memorial that graces the Freedom Trail in downtown Boston; anti-Semitic game-call slogans used by high school football players, resulting in the school’s coach being terminated.6 Apprehension of the culprits, like those that set fires in Arlington and Needham, is rare.

“It’s like we can never come to closure,” Rabbi Bukiet says.

Neighbors whose voices were once united in vociferous solidarity are now hushed. Most of the placards—“Hate Has No Home Here”—have been taken down. Those that spoke loudly and passionately at Town Hall have not called for follow-up meetings. There are no sign-up sheets visible at community centers or laundromats enlisting citizen participation in Neighborhood Watch patrols. Gone are the broadsides once push-pinned onto community bulletin boards urging citizens to “drop a dime” and report suspicious activities. I find myself wondering: was the solidarity rally in Arlington Town Hall a one-off?7

Discussions among Jews have increased, however, as they continue to explore ways to protect themselves and consider bolder measures, including carrying firearms to worship services in synagogues.

One proponent of defending oneself with bolder measures is Rabbi Dan Rodkin of Brighton’s Shaloh House.8 It should be noted that on July 1, 2021, Rabbi Shlomo Noginski, a Hebrew teacher at Shaloh House, was stabbed eight times in an anti-Semitic attack.9

Several of Rodkin’s congregants—those who have served in the military and in law enforcement—have heeded the rabbi’s call and now come to synagogue packing heat.

“We can’t think, ‘I’m just praying and God will save me,’ ” Rabbi Rodkin told WBUR. “No, we need to take care of situations ourselves.” Indeed, several of Rodkin’s congregants—those who have served in the military and in law enforcement—have heeded the rabbi’s call and now come to synagogue packing heat.

“I don’t want people to have guns, but I think to protect our families it is a necessity now,” Rodkin told WBUR, adding that he expects to get a gun and pledges to “organize training for the new gun owners” at his synagogue.

Training congregants in the use of weapons at synagogues was already well underway in Los Angeles before the fatal shooting of a female congregant on April 27, 2019, in Poway. Rabbi Raziel Cohen, the self-proclaimed “Tactical Rabbi,” told the Los Angeles Times that he teaches congregants at his Los Angeles synagogue how to use AR-15 rifles.10 Cohen is quoted as saying, “We don’t need to be victims. We need to protect ourselves now.”

In a telephone interview on January 18, 2021, Rabbi Cohen emphasized that while he is a proponent of the use of firearms and indeed has trained scores of people how to safely use them, there are several necessary steps that must be followed before engaging in their use.

“A big part of what I am advocating,” Rabbi Cohen tells me, “is to ensure there are adequate facility protections in place to deter potential anti-Semitic threats. This includes 24-hour, 7-days-a-week, all-year-round video surveillance and signage that announces—to one and all—that security protections are in place. If I am a would-be culprit and I know there is a high likelihood I will get caught and arrested, these measures are effective deterrents. Coupling this measure with an early warning alarm system and other facility fortifications as well as practicing lockdown procedures are absolute necessities. Only when these levels of security have been breached is the use of firearms called for.”

Robert Trestan, director of the New England office of the ADL in Boston—one of the key speakers who addressed the overflow crowd in Arlington Town Hall two years ago—adamantly disagrees with this approach.

“A house of worship is not a place where one should be bringing any kind of weapon,” Trestan insists.11

Other solutions are safer and more effective, Trestan says. In Greater Boston, funding is available from the Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) and the ADL to help defray the costs of maintaining surveillance equipment and the hiring of security patrols during religious services. A “watch list” is distributed via the Internet to synagogues and other religious leaders detailing the activities of suspicious individuals who may have issued threats, or who may have been sighted stalking religious sites, schools, or other religious institutions.

Trestan and his team routinely meet with law enforcement personnel, town officials, and human rights groups in dozens of Massachusetts’s cities and towns—indeed, throughout New England—to help these groups to implement safety measures. The ADL is also connected to a global information network and follows the movements of international terrorist groups that may be plotting disruptive activities here.

For his part, Rabbi Bukiet has taken Robert Trestan’s advice to heart. “I’ve attended many ADL meetings,” Rabbi Bukiet says, “and I have taken classes that have taught me how to develop exit strategies should there ever be active situations at our synagogue. Additionally, I maintain an active presence in the community. I have spoken to numerous school groups and met with schoolchildren about our faith, and I talk with them about the work we do at our Center. I have an excellent relationship with the local police. They know the times and dates of when we hold our classes and services. They patrol Lake Street diligently.”

Though he agrees with all of these measures, Rabbi Bukiet parts ways with Trestan on the carrying of firearms.

“Sadly,” he says, “the extremism that has surfaced in our nation has emboldened many of those who practice hate. After the deadly incidents in Pittsburgh and Poway, we must be realistic. Several members of our Chabad Center are licensed to carry firearms. I am not opposed to this. Before services, they patrol the premises. They keep these weapons concealed. They are trained to use them. Many synagogues in the Greater Boston area hire security patrols and these patrols are similarly armed. Yes, we have security cameras in place. We have applied for a federal grant that we expect to receive soon and we will be implementing further security protections for the Center, including installing stronger fences and more secure windows.”

Yet, secured perimeters, new surveillance cameras, and other important self-protection measures are not substitutes for ongoing community support. Rabbi Bukiet hopes that once coronavirus restrictions are fully eased, he will once again greet his neighbors. He recalls when community members of many faiths—some told him they were atheists— crammed into the corridors and meeting rooms of the Center to express support.

In the meantime, an uneasy calm prevails. Rabbi Bukiet and his fellow congregants, determined to stay and to freely practice their faith, keep a watchful eye as they patrol their Center and their neighborhood on Lake Street.

Notes:

  1. Penny Schwartz, “Police Probing Three Fires at Two Boston Chabad Centers,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, May 17, 2019.
  2. Rabbi Avi Bukiet, interview with the author, January 20, 2021.
  3. ADL, “Anti-Semitic Incidents Hit All-Time High in 2019,” press release, May 12, 2020. A year later, in 2020, the ADL’s audit noted a 4 percent decrease in nationwide anti-Semitic incidents, indicating that the lower figure is “still the third-highest year on record since ADL began tracking anti-Semitic incidents in 1979”; “Audit of Antisemitic Incidents 2020.” 
  4. Bari Weiss, “To Fight Anti-Semitism, Be a Proud Jew,” New York Times, September 6, 2019.
  5. Jesse Collings, “Arlington Shows Solidarity with Jewish Community following Chabad Fires,” Arlington Advocate, May 20, 2019.
  6. Duxbury Fires HS Football Coach after Anti-Semitic Language Used in Game Play Calls,” WCVB 5, March 25, 2021.
  7. When asked for an update from the Arlington Human Rights Commission (AHRC), Sharon Grossman, director, replied to the author via email on January 24, 2021: “The AHRC periodically receives updates from the Arlington Police Department [APD] concerning the arsons at the Chabad House in Arlington. At our most recent meeting . . . we heard from the APD that they continue to be in touch with the FBI, who are, I believe, the lead investigators. The FBI is continuing to follow up on leads, which they sound like they are still receiving. The AHRC will continue to follow up with the APD.”
  8. Brighton Rabbi Asks Congregation to Bring Guns to Synagogue,” WBUR, June 24, 2019.
  9. The assailant is known to have authored anti-Semitic messages, and prosecutors have added hate crime offenses to the stabbing charge. John R. Ellement and Andrew Brinker, “Man Who Allegedly Stabbed Rabbi in Brighton Faces Hate Crime, Civil Rights Charges,” Boston Globe, July 8, 2021.
  10. Sonja Sharp, “The ‘Tactical Rabbi’ Helps Synagogues Defend against Anti-Semitic Violence,” Los Angeles Times, May 10, 2019. A photograph in the newspaper showed him holding a high-powered assault weapon in a crowded synagogue classroom.
  11. Robert Trestan, interview with the author, July 3, 2019.

Robert Israel is a freelance writer and editor. His last piece for the Bulletinwas an interview with MIT professor and author Alan Lightman in the Autumn/Winter 2019 issue. A resident of Arlington, MA, he can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com.

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