Jews and guns

To carry or not to carry - in today's world, is that even a question we should be asking anymore?

Larry Gordon ,

Israeli man trains at a shooting range
Israeli man trains at a shooting range
Nati Shohat/Flash90

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.  At the same time 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 and this has just about always been the reality.  So the sensitive question is: what about in the United States, and specifically in the Jewish community here in New York that is very much a potential target for those seeking to disrupt and threaten the safety and security that we have once again grown accustoms to in this post 9-11 world?

With international and world security what it currently is and in the aftermath of attacks in Paris, Belgium, San Bernadino, knifing assaults in Israel and the massacre just over a year ago at a shul in Har Nof, we have all become more conscious of the reality of the need to protect our shuls and communities.

We all know that the police in New York do an outstanding job and that includes, of course, the very smart and attentive Nassau County Police Department.  Obviously the police want to protect us as residents of our home areas and they want to be protecting the sanctity and provide safety for us in our shuls and institutions.  At the same time, however, they are admittedly shorthanded and limited by what they can by virtue of budgetary constraints.

So as it happens here in the 5 Towns and most likely in other similar communities around the world, there are gun owners who have the option and 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 Rabbi’s 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 who have carry permits that 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 in a helpless situation.  The terrorists who attacked this 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 here in New York or for that matter anywhere in the world that is so vulnerable and defenseless in the future. (Full story at 5TJT.COM and in this weeks 5TJT)

While some of our shuls feature armed plain clothes private security guards primarily on Shabbos - usually off duty police officers - other shuls simply are not big enough or do not have the budget to retain security apparatus at their shuls.  In Far Rockaway we were told last year that 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 department in the police department.  The idea of guns being carried by people who paid for permits without proper training or licensing poses a serious danger to everyone.  There is no excuse or a replacement for following guidelines and regulations in order to secure a proper gun or pistol permit.

The extensive publicity about the Brooklyn gun case cast somewhat of a pall over the shul-going frum community in general over the last few weeks.  Suddenly thanks to the New York Post the impression was created that frum Jews have gone gun-crazy - in actuality this is the furthest thing from the truth.

So it did not help to alleviate this sense when seven police officers from the gun 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 arrival of the officers at the shul was a “raid” for 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 or intentionally sensationalized or mischaracterized what took place.

Chief Steven Skyrecki, Chief of the Nassau County Police Department told the 5TJT that the arrival at the shul of the officer s at a time when services were underway 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.”

Town of Hempstead Councilman Bruce Blakeman who arranged and attended meeting shortly after the incident between police and community members 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 into 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 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 acquiring of gun permits for members of the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn by one individual paying a fee to police officials in charge of issuing permits.

As reported above the local press reported this incident as being a "raid", which is a mischaracterization as well as misleading.  The Rabbi of the shul told us that, “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 interest of all involved that it remain that way.  And that is particularly true here in Nassau County.  Police and political leaders known 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 and are present there solely to protect and defend the members of the shul should an incident arise.  Yehuda Dafna 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 resides in Woodmere, is a gun owner and an advocate for legal and properly licensed gun ownership, a right provided by the second amendment of the constitution of the United States - that is 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 God forbids something happens questions will be asked about why we were not more pro-active in assisting the already overburdened police that can only do so much.  That is why, he says, we are better off being pro-active now rather than waiting to second guess ourselves later.

Over the years I’ve attended police meetings in the 5 Towns with the head of the departments and the constant and 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 are our choices - to hope for the best or try to do something about it by assisting police in a lawful manner? 

It might be most prudent to do both.

Larry Gordon is Editor-in-Chief of the 5 Towns Jewish Times.