An unexpected visitor at a Congregation Agudas Achim service just over a week ago has reinvigorated discussions about the security of local Jewish institutions.
Authorities were alerted by Agudas Achim after the uninvited and unannounced visitor, described as a bald white man with a camouflage-colored backpack, came in the doors of the synagogue for a Tisha B’Av service on Aug. 11. Bexley police determined Aug. 16 the visitor, who was previously deemed “suspicious,” poses no threat to Jewish institutions.
Bexley Police Chief Larry Rinehart told the Columbus Jewish News last week the man had tattoos and markings that “were concerning” as they appeared to be similar to the neo-Nazi lightning bolts symbols, though neither Rinehart nor Ari Goldberg, executive director for operations at Agudas Achim, could confirm whether the tattoos were anti-Semitic in nature.
In the aftermath, synagogues around Central Ohio, including Agudas Achim, sent out messages alerting the community about the individual and scheduling security meetings and trainings to ensure such an incident – or one that is indeed dangerous or harmful – does not happen again.
Goldberg said when he arrived for services Aug. 11, he noticed the man in question was already seated. Goldberg said he approached him and asked if he was a guest of the shul. The man told Goldberg he wanted to experience a Jewish service – a motive that has not been discredited.
“He was very unobtrusive (with regard to the service),” Goldberg said. “He sat quietly, ironically enough. He was offered a yarmulke, he put it on, when he went to leave, he put it back. He didn’t say anything, didn’t exhibit any concerning behavior. He looked suspicious, but his behavior was such that he was not disturbing anyone.”
Agudas Achim president Julie Schottenstein Saar said the individual was again spotted by a congregant on a local street at about 7 a.m. Aug. 16. The congregant called Bexley police and Schottenstein Saar called the synagogue’s security consultant. Law enforcement interviewed the man that morning and deemed he was not a threat.
“We are relieved to be able to share with the community that the unexpected visitor whose presence at Agudas caused a stir last Sunday has been stopped by police, identified and interviewed and we have been advised that he poses no threat to Jewish institutions,” read an Aug. 16 email from Agudas Achim, signed by Rabbi Mitch Levine and Schottenstein Saar.
Goldberg said about 15 people attended service Aug. 11, which he said was slightly larger than a typical Sunday minyan due to Tisha B’Av.
“We do have a fairly tight security infrastructure, but at the same time, we need individuals in the Jewish community to also – when they see someone – ask questions (and) report it to the appropriate authorities,” said Goldberg, who noted most of the Columbus-area synagogues likely have non-Jewish guests. “Just because someone is behaving in a non-threatening way, if we don’t recognize someone, then there’s something concerning. It’s incumbent upon all of us to be safe. If you see something, say something.”
Schottenstein Saar said the experience has taught the synagogue it’s important to take every precaution, “and assume the worst, sadly.” Moreover, law enforcement reminded them even if one doesn’t feel comfortable “judging” whether another may be dangerous, ultimately it shouldn’t be the congregant or shul’s call to make – law enforcement should be notified if any unexpected visitors arrive and they will make the call.
“We just learned better than ever, people who are not members are not invited in as they would be in the old days,” she said. “They have to call ahead, you have to have a plan.”
Rinehart praised the response of the synagogue and said Bexley police partnered with the shul on security initiatives.
“It’s a very vigilant synagogue,” he said. “They’re very safety-minded.”
The synagogue sent a follow-up email announcing a workshop, “Awareness Training for Violent Encounters,” scheduled for Aug. 21 and was to be led by security consultant Fred Bowditch of Bowditch Consulting.
JewishColumbus held a conference call to discuss the incident with Jewish leaders in the Columbus area
Aug. 15. The organization has funded armed, off-duty police officers at Jewish institutions in Central Ohio since May.
Congregation Torat Emet in Bexley also said in an email, signed by Rabbi Howard Zack and shul president Dr. Michael Blumenfeld, its staff was “extra vigilant” in light of the incident. Torat Emet’s staff and security committee was also scheduled to meet with Bowditch and Rhinehart, as well as review standards and procedures for its Shabbat security guards.
Emails from Congregation Tifereth Israel and Temple Israel, both in Columbus, also outlined the now-closed investigation and provided tips for how Jewish institutions can stay safe.
When asked if the synagogue and community’s response to the no-longer-suspicious visitor was appropriate, Goldberg said the incident was a learning experience.
“Even though this has been deemed, fortunately, not a threat at all, we’ve learned some lessons we have implemented to upgrade our security,” he said. “And I think that’s the case with all the congregations in town. ... It’s a reminder that we’ve always got to continue to be on our toes and different scenarios will lead us to learn different lessons.”