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Armed volunteers protecting synagogues amid rise in antisemitism

Last year the Anti-Defamation League received allegations of more than 3,600 antisemitic incidents, the most the organization has ever recorded.
Armed volunteers protecting synagogues amid rise in antisemitism
Posted at 4:25 PM, Jun 15, 2023

Every day, Meir Marcus goes to a Houston synagogue to pray. He closely follows the most ancient traditions of his faith, including the religious garments he wears during a service. 

"I am an Orthodox Jew, and it's not just a title. It's a way of life," Marcus said.

He said his way of life makes him and the Jewish community a target. It's why he is always carrying a gun.

"I'm not going to sit around and wait for something really bad to happen in my personal life and the people around me that I can take an active approach to protecting," Marcus said. 

Professionally, Marcus trains armed guards for a private security company. With antisemitism on the rise, Marcus is now training those who pray alongside him to protect their synagogues. Through his nonprofit, Lone Star Haganah, he trains members of the Jewish community to be licensed armed security guards.

Last year the Anti-Defamation League received reports of more than 3,600 antisemitic incidents, the most the organization has ever recorded. 

They range from cases of verbal harassment to assault.

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The White House has launched an effort to fight antisemitism, but the members of the Jewish community we spoke with said they are taking matters into their own hands when it comes to protecting themselves and where they go to pray. 

"As a guy who grew up, loves his country and spent a significant portion of my life serving this country, it's very troubling we're in this position in the United States," said Anthony Levey.

Levey is a retired Department of Homeland Security agent who spent much of his career securing federal buildings. Last year he started the nonprofit Synagogue Security Initiative, which helps install security measures at Jewish institutions in Texas.

"A local law enforcement officer, off-duty, depending on what area of the city, is about $40 to $60 an hour, and that can be very prohibitive when you think of all the hours we need coverage for," Levey said. "A lot of smaller synagogues can't afford that."

Marcus said the training he puts people through totals more than 90 hours, roughly triple the amount that many armed security guards go through to be licensed in Texas. 

On top of weapons training, people are taught measures like how to greet strangers who enter a synagogue.

"Simply how you stand at a door or how you talk to someone can be just as big a deterrent to someone who is armed because you just reset someone's plan, say, 'Hey good morning.' Everything they had planned out if they were looking to do harm," said Jonah Nathan, another security professional who works with Marcus.

Guns in places of worship are part of a larger debate about guns in America. Last year New York lawmakers passed a bill to make carrying a concealed weapon in a place of worship a felony. A federal judge blocked the law saying it violated the Second Amendment. 

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In Texas, where it is legal to carry a concealed weapon, Rabbi Aryeh Wolbe believes it is essential to his protection.

"I carry 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Rabbi Wolbe said.

Wolbe runs the TORCH Centre, a Jewish education center, where on the front door there is a sign that says guns are welcome.

"If, God forbid, we are a target, we have to be ready to respond, not just sit here and plead 'Oh have mercy on us,' we have to do whatever measure we can to protect ourselves."

Levey and Marcus told us what they say to those who are uncomfortable with the idea of an armed congregation.

"Any security force in today's threat environment, I will tell you that in my personal opinion, any reputable security force has to have an armed security component," Levey said.

Levey said firearms are a tool in the overall effort of making where they worship safe. With so much on the line if an incident were to happen, he and Marcus stand by the training they give their students.

"We have a much higher responsibility due to the dense crowd here and also, it's our families, our wives, our kids and our friends that are here each week and each day. And if an incident were to occur, we can't have any collateral damage," Marcus said. 

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