Jewish community in Richmond remaining vigilant

Massacre in Pittsburgh synagogue has local congregations re-evaluating their security

“This is a high traffic area, so we were being a little cautious of who’s coming into the parking lot, for example.”

Michael Sachs cast his mind back to a “heightened state of awareness” Saturday, when an RCMP cruiser was parked outside The Bayit synagogue at No. 3 Road and Steveston Highway, as there was at all three of the city’s Jewish places of worship.

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Just a few hours previous, Sachs had learned of the terrible tragedy in a small Jewish community in Pittsburgh, where a gunman walked into a synagogue of around 70 people, shot dead 11 and seriously injured six others, while yelling “All Jews must die.”

The scene was eerily similar to that of The Bayit on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, where between 60 and 70 members of Richmond’s orthodox congregation were attending, many of them families with children.

“I was horrified. Even though this was happening in a different country on the other side of the continent, in the Jewish community, this hits us deep,” Sachs, The Bayit’s president, told the Richmond News on Monday.

“We always have dealt with and still deal with anti-Semitism; it’s below the surface, but when it comes above the surface, it’s very impactful and painful for all of us.”

Bayit
The Bayit synagogue's president Michael Sachs (left), with Rabbi Levi Varnai, talked of a 'heightened state of awareness" Saturday, in the aftermath of the massacre in a Pittsburgh synagogue. Alan Campbell photo

For the 20-25 children at The Bayit on Saturday, it was a “different vibe” than usual, revealed Sachs.

“They wondered why the police were here. They were made aware. We don’t go into all the details.

“But many of them will have deal with the reality that these sorts of things happen to the Jewish community throughout the world. We just told them the police were here to make sure we are all safe.

“But we are resilient and we continue to move forward. All this does is remind us to be extra vigilant.”

Mentally, said Sachs, he and fellow members of the Jewish community, immediately insert themselves into tragic incidents such as Pittsburgh.

“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, what happened? Oh my gosh, who do I know? And, oh my gosh, that could happen here,’” he said.

“One of the first things I thought of was getting the RCMP involved with upping the level of security at all the synagogues in Richmond on Saturday.”

The Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, said Sachs, stepped up and asked all law enforcement agencies in the Lower Mainland to up the level of security, “just to make sure we all felt safe.”

The federation, according to Sachs, has its own security consultant, who has been working all the region’s synagogues, including The Bayit, to ensure security protocols and systems are in place.

“This started about a year ago and it’s an ongoing thing,” added Sachs.

“It’s always at the back of our heads that something like this could happen. But we are very lucky to live in Richmond’s multi-cultural and harmonious community.

“We have elected officials in Richmond that care deeply about the Jewish community, as well as the entire community.

“Our relationship with these people, and with our neighbours, such as the South Arm United Church over the road, helps us feel safe.”

The leaders of Richmond’s three Jewish congregations – The Bayit, Beth Tikvah and Chabad of Richmond – were due to meet with the RCMP Tuesday night to discuss, among other things, security at their respective synagogues.

Sachs said “an emotional” service held Sunday night in Vancouver to remember those killed and injured in Pittsburgh attracted more than 1,000 people.

“We have received many messages from the community, from politicians, friends, the RCMP, other faiths and business contacts,” said Sachs.

“It really is one of those situations that you sit back and recognize that, although this was a devastating event, it also shows the level of humanity that exists in the world.

“It gives us comfort that, as a whole, Canada is with us and the actions of one individual will not destroy our community.”

 

Many people of Jewish faith observe the rule not to use technology on their Sabbath, a practice that led to Beth Tikvah’s Rabbi Adam Rubin beginning his usual service unaware of what had unfolded in Pittsburgh.

And, depending on how observant his congregation were of the Sabbath rule, some in his flock would also have been blissfully unaware.

“A police officer, who is a member of our congregation, came in the middle (of the prayer service) to let me know what had happened and to let us know they were going to be around,” Rabbi Rubin told the News.

“I have to say, the RCMP has been remarkable, incredibly responsive. And the support from the surrounding faith community, Muslims, Christians, for example, has been amazing, truly amazing.”

Asked about tightening security, Rubin said his synagogue has to walk a fine line between being safe and having an open-door policy.

He revealed, however, that Beth Tikvah is considering a fob entry system, which may now be “top of the agenda.”

The synagogue in Pittsburgh was understood to have a fob system in operation, which reportedly wasn’t switched on Saturday due to it being the Sabbath.

Rubin told the News that, in the event of an emergency, technology is “absolutely” permitted on a Saturday.

He added that a continent-wide push is currently on for all people of Jewish faith to congregate this Saturday to honour those killed last week.

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