Small-Town Jews Are Used to Locked Synagogues

Twenty percent of American Jews live outside major metropolitan areas and experience blatant anti-Semitism.

A woman holds her baby at a Pittsburgh memorial service at Temple Emanuel in Roanoke, Virginia.
People remember the Pittsburgh victims at a memorial service at Temple Emanuel in Roanoke, Virginia. (Heather Rousseau / The Roanoke Times via AP)

A week before the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue that left 11 Jews dead, Dana Brown, a student at Brandeis, went to Shabbat services at a Boston synagogue, not far from campus. She was surprised to find that the building’s doors were unlocked. “I had never been to a temple where the doors didn’t lock,” Brown told me. “That was very peculiar to me.” This struck her, and the sense of surprise stayed with her for several days. Then Pittsburgh happened and showed why doors are locked and other security measures are taken at many synagogues across America, especially those outside major cities where anti-Semitism is felt most strongly.

Brown grew up in South Bend, Indiana—home to Notre Dame University and, for five generations, to her Jewish family, who immigrated to the U.S. from Russia. Growing up, Brown and her parents alternated attendance at prayer services at the town’s three small synagogues: Reform, Conservative, Orthodox. Each synagogue locks its doors, and on Shabbat, someone will guard the door to let shul-goers in. It’s not a hard job, because everyone knows one another.

The massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh brought the world’s attention to American anti-Semitism. Many Jewish communities will now scrutinize the security at their institutions, questioning how to protect congregants while also ensuring the open, welcoming environment that many Jews expect when they go to a synagogue.

But people who live in small, tight-knit Jewish communities such as South Bend have grappled with these questions forever, and they’re getting harder to answer—especially when funding is tight and congregations struggle to even get enough people for a minyan, the Jewish prayer quorum of 10 people.

Still, Jews who grew up in small towns are proud of the way they had to work to maintain the Jewish character of their community. Nathan Vaughan grew up in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where the Jewish community included just a few families who met once a month in someone’s home for a sort of DIY Shabbat service and potluck dinner. As a kid, he and his family also made once-monthly Friday night excursions to an actual synagogue in a town called Owensboro. “We took a toll road,” he told me, which was an indulgence for the family. All week, he explained, “we would save our quarters,” in order to take the quicker route and arrive in time for the start of the prayer service. For more than 10 years, his mom drove him and his brother 70 miles  to Nashville every Sunday to attend Hebrew school. “It was a measure of how committed my mother was to raising us Jewish,” Vaughan said.

The murder of 11 Jews at their place of worship came as a tragic surprise to everybody, in communities large and small. But many people I spoke with who live in areas with few other Jews told me that this shooting led them to reckon with anti-Semitism that they’d experienced—thankfully nothing as extreme, but still demoralizing and frightening. Vaughan told me that he found out after his high-school graduation that his friends “had all been secretly praying together, for [a] year, that I would find Jesus,” he said. Vaughan’s older brother’s high-school English class began every morning with a prayer for his soul.

Matthew Boxer, a Jewish-studies professor at Brandeis, remembers anti-Semitism as commonplace in his hometown of Niagara Falls, New York. “I was physically assaulted several times in high school,” Boxer told me. But what he learned growing up—a lesson that is now the focus of his academic research—is that having to work to bring Jewish practice into your life makes your connection to the faith and to the community stronger. “In a small community, you have to think of Judaism like a contact sport,” Boxer explained. You have to work to make it happen. You have to be near other people who are actively embracing Judaism. Compare that with a big city, like New York or Chicago, where being Jewish “is like going to a concert—it’s a spectator sport.” You might show up on a Saturday morning, but “you’re watching somebody else do Jewish things.”

For Avrom Itkin, an Orthodox rabbi in a small town in New York’s Hudson Valley, even getting the town’s few Jews together is a challenge. “We live, so to speak, in the woods, in the boondocks,” Itkin told me. His synagogue in Kingston has around 40 attendees every Shabbat, and just under 200 people show up for the High Holidays.

Itkin and his family have received their share of anti-Semitic slurs. It’s not common, he said, but it happens. “People have hate in their hearts. We’re in a different era,” he observed. Pittsburgh’s attack led him to schedule a security meeting with law enforcement for next week, and he’ll have to consider “precautions that European Jewish communities take”: armed guards, locked doors, increased security. But Itkin believes that the real way to fight anti-Semitism is with kindness and mitzvot, or Jewish commandments. “If you want to fight this evil, you fight it with light, by doing good deeds, good acts of kindness,” Itkin told me.

This is the prevailing response to Pittsburgh in small Jewish communities: Join together with Jewish and non-Jewish friends alike to remember those lost, but also to move forward and build community. Dozens of Jews from across the country—ranging from small cities like Omaha and Norfolk to towns like Peabody, Massachusetts, and Waterville, Maine—emailed me to let me know, proudly, that their communities were hosting vigils, remembering the Pittsburgh victims, and refusing to be afraid.

Kurt Love, the board president at the Temple of the High Country in western North Carolina, has been heartened by his town’s response to the massacre. His synagogue has no full-time rabbi—a rabbi flies down from New York one weekend a month—and the number of Jews varies seasonally, since it’s mainly a vacation spot. “The level of support we’ve seen from individuals and organizations across the spectrum has been humbling and overwhelming,” Love told me, pointing out that the vast majority of nearby residents are white and Christian. “The strength with which the local population has come out and said this is wrong, and this is not who we are as Americans, and we are here to help you in any way we can has been inspiring,” he said.

Those connections to the Boone, North Carolina, Christian community didn’t emerge out of nowhere. The town’s religious leaders formed an interfaith clergy group in 2015 after a white supremacist killed nine people in a shooting at a historically black church in Charleston, just a few hours away. At first, the group didn’t meet regularly—the mass shooting at an Orlando gay nightclub in 2016 brought its members together again briefly—until the August 2017 Unite the Right Rally organized by the alt-right in Charlottesville, Virginia. Love’s message from all this: “If such a thing is possible in this predominantly white, evangelically Christian region, surely other communities can do it as well.”

Twenty percent of American Jews live away from major metropolitan centers in the northeast, South Florida, and southern California, primarily. “The other 80 percent should start talking to the 20 percent,” Brown, from South Bend, told me. “What does it mean for the Jewish community to say we support everyone, but 20 percent you’ve just left behind or forgotten?” Brown said that people from communities like hers have a lot to teach their counterparts in cities like Los Angeles or Miami.

Jews all over the country share many of the same concerns: Keeping people involved in religious programming, getting parents to sign their kids up for Hebrew school, staying safe. But not all communities are equally well equipped to address those problems. Brown asked, “What does it mean to walk into your synagogue and need an armed guard when you can’t afford one?” She told me about a friend of hers, from another small town in Indiana, whose synagogue has no room in the budget for security. So they got creative: They gave the synagogue’s Wi-Fi password to the local police officers, in the hope that they might choose to take their break in the synagogue’s parking lot and offer at least some intermittent protection.

But Jews everywhere understand that the Pittsburgh attack could have happened anywhere. “No one is immune to such hate,” Itkin, the rabbi from the Hudson Valley, noted. He grew up in Pittsburgh, so grappling with the tragedy is personal for him. “The home of your youth is so peaceful, and now it’s just shattered,” he said. But he’s not naive, and he knows the next Pittsburgh could be in his adopted town of Kingston.

Boxer, the Brandeis professor, does not have much to offer in the way of optimism. From his research, Boxer knows that America’s record on anti-Semitism is grim. One subject told him that people referred to his tiny Wisconsin town as Nazi-ville, because most of the residents are descended from Nazis who emigrated from Germany after World War II.

Now Boxer’s friends talk about “no longer feeling safe as a Jew in America,” he told me. “I told them nothing’s changed.”

But he does take solace in knowing that tight-knit communities—like where he grew up in Niagara, and even like Squirrel Hill—offer a special kind of comfort and warmth that cannot be replicated. “Squirrel Hill … has a little of that small community feel to it,” Boxer explained. “That, I think, is serving the community well as they grieve and try to begin healing.”