What Active-Shooter Trainings Steal From Synagogues

I’ve long been ambivalent about the effects of such drills—but when one came to my synagogue, I felt compelled to attend.

An illustration featuring three photos—one of a synagogue and two of active-shooter trainings
Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The San Francisco Chronicle / Getty; David H. Wells / Getty; Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty

On a Sunday late in November, I spent the day at my synagogue in Philadelphia. The Germantown Jewish Centre, where I am a member, was holding a day-long security training on what to do if an active shooter came to our community’s home, and I felt compelled to attend.

The reason for the training is obvious: For a few years now, this country has been experiencing a marked, measurable uptick in anti-Semitic hate speech and even hate crimes. Fear of these kinds of attacks in synagogues is not wholly new, of course; I remember my Hungarian grandparents, Holocaust survivors, looking pale and stiff at my bar mitzvah, the first time they’d been in a Jewish house of worship in 30 years. But the proliferation of guns and the general air of rancor in the United States have made Jewish communities feel more on edge today. Even so, I’ve long been ambivalent about the effects of active-shooter drills in general, and of increasing security at houses of worship more specifically—feeling, at times, that in doing so, we lose something essential. This training would give me a chance to figure out what—and why.

So I went. Maybe I’d learn something.

I arrived late. There were already maybe 30 people in the room. At 45, I was by far the youngest person there. I have two kids, ages 13 and 10, and they have attended far more active-shooter drills than I have. This was the first for me, and they have attended at least one per semester for years now.

The hum of conversation lulled as two men, one with a little winter in his goatee, the other with his head shaved and his substantial arms crossed, moved to the front of the room. I learned later that the synagogue had hired a risk-assessment contractor, and now we were being led by a former chief of police of Bergen County, New Jersey, and a former officer in his charge. The former chief began by giving us a visual tour of the room we were in. Then he asked, “What would you do if an active shooter was in the building?”

What would we do. What. Would. We. Do. I do not come to this building often, not even for worship. Now I was scanning a room for exits, for means to block doors. The former chief and the officer showed us how to use wire from a television to tie off the mechanism that allowed the door to open. They pointed out the large furniture we might use to barricade a door—or to absorb a bullet. They explained the three biggest factors that would help save us in this place of worship: time, distance, and shielding. Time to keep away from the shooter, waiting for police to arrive. Distance from the shooter. Shielding from the shooter.

“How long does it take, on average, for a city police department to arrive at the scene of an active shooter?” The chief gave an answer—three to five minutes—but I know this only because I followed up later. At that second, I could not hear it. My ears were filled with a roaring as though I had stuffed them with Styrofoam, imagining myself in that room as a shooter patrolled the hallways.

I learned, once I was able to tune back in, some useful tips for how to stay alive for five minutes in a sanctuary intended for prayer. Later in the training we would feel some satisfaction about how we were all now in a way T cells protecting the congregation. But that was not how I felt at first. I found myself avoiding eye contact with the other congregants. I was anxious, wondering: How on earth did we get here? What is the value of imagining the unimaginable, trying to game out our actions for a terror that may never arrive? I thought of raising my hand, of asking these questions—but I’m not a hand-raiser, and these were not the questions to be asking during an active-shooter training.

Being in a room full of older Jews, however, I was surrounded by hand-raisers, and they bottlenecked on iterations of a single inquiry: Shouldn’t we have an armed guard at the door? A low-level buzz began, a feeling that yes, this was a way to ensure our safety. I was grateful when the former chief pushed back. “You could do that, sure,” he said. “But what’s the likelihood that guard would be at the right door when a shooter arrived? And if he drew his weapon …” He told us that even trained active-duty police officers hit what they shoot at less than 20 percent of the time.

Other questions wrestled with the ethical quandaries we could find ourselves in. One man, silver-haired, with a scarf around his neck, asked: “What if we know we can escape by a window, but there is someone in a wheelchair, or someone moves too slow? How do we decide what to do?” The two men at the front of the room deferred to us. “We can’t tell you,” the former chief said. “Only you can decide.”

“But how?” the silver-haired man asked. “How do we decide?”

All I could think was: There are books full of almost 6,000 years of wisdom in this very building, with all kinds of answers to that question. I’d spent the past year honing my Hebrew through a combination of staring at Duolingo on my phone for hours at a time and reading psalms. By chance, just that morning I’d been reading Psalm 140 in the King James Bible, before reading it in Hebrew. “Deliver me, O Lord,” the English translation begins, “from the evil man: preserve me from the violent man.” The day before, the psalm had felt full of King David’s wisdom, continuing, “Keep me, O Lord, from the hands of the wicked; preserve me from the violent man; who have purposed to overthrow my goings.”

It is not a prayer in service of arming oneself, of hiring armed guards. It is a supplication to the deity: Through your power and my steadfastness, keep me from danger. At all costs, let this be a space of peace, of sanctuary. Please let us all be safe from violence.

Here’s where I’ll say more emphatically: I don’t much like the way such trainings, such talk, put a community on edge. When my kids have come home after days when they underwent active-shooter drills, some skeptical part of me has pictured my own parents, Baby Boomers, hiding under their desks as schoolchildren, fearing nuclear annihilation. We look back on those moments now and consider them folly. But this is a different kind of threat, requiring a different response. In the secular spaces where my daughters have had active-shooter trainings, it was out of fear of a kind of stochastic terrorism we all face. But here, inside a Jewish place of worship, there was a different, more specific, and much older variety of threat: anti-Semitism.

For a number of years our synagogue has required a key fob to enter the building. I don’t like seeing it on my keychain; it reminds me of the threats we face, and that our synagogue cannot be both an open place and one of true safety. An armed guard seemed a similar prospect: In adding the possibility of security, we would lose sanctity. The active-shooter training only deepened my discomfort. I left wondering if a sacred space given over to a training where we repeatedly imagined a violent attack taking place there had been diminished by the deed. I’ll confess I still don’t really know.

What I do know is that this synagogue I attend is a thoughtful and warm place, and, despite the key fobs, an open one. The event itself was well run. After it ended, a community member asked folks to stay and discuss how they felt.

“I can feel it here and here,” one woman said, pointing at her temples and her forehead. “My central nervous system is buzzing.” I wasn’t alone in having a head stuffed with Styrofoam. But it was gone now, and as we regained our normal clarity and rationality, I found myself coming back again and again to that moment when the former police chief pushed back on the idea of having an armed guard at the synagogue.

I’ve been contemplating it ever since. About what we lose when we close a door, or put a man with a gun in front of it. Scholars have been vocal about the ways in which a newly expansive view of the Second Amendment has begun to trample on the free-speech clause of the First. As the professors Diana Palmer and Timothy Zick argued in this magazine, “People cannot exercise their speech rights when they fear for their lives.” Sitting in my synagogue that afternoon, I considered how gun rights were trampling on the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment now too. Can people properly exercise their religious rights when they fear for their lives? America’s gun culture had put a bunch of Jewish Americans in a room and made them worry about their safety, filling the space that might have welled up with questions of theology and worship with the internal noise of fear.

One thing I did not expect: In the months since the training, I have found myself a little more inclined to head to shul on a Saturday morning, to just be there, to be a part of a congregation. To be a T cell, if needed. I keep thinking back to the morning after the training, when I returned to my daily reading of psalms. I found myself drawn to Psalm 133: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!”