The Jewish people have a fascinating history of being knocked down and repeatedly getting back up. Their history is filled with enslavement and defeat, a history darker than pretty much any other group in the world. And that’s before you get to talking about the Holocaust.
What happened at the Tree of Life Synagogue, while an awful tragedy, is just a bump in the history of the Jewish people when you step away and try to look at it dispassionately.
But Pittsburgh was recent. It’s in our minds right now, and that makes it large and more pronounced than enslavement by the Egyptians, for example.
With that in mind, is it any wonder that some Jews are carrying guns to temple? Is it any wonder that the synagogues are getting more and more comfortable with that?
On an average Saturday morning at the Orthodox Ohel Tefillah synagogue on Chicago’s North Side, about 10 percent of the men carry a handgun.
That number may seem high in a liberal city with some of the strictest gun laws in the country. But in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre last year, Rabbi Moshe Revah expects it will grow. He wouldn’t be surprised if soon, 10 of the 40 or so men who pray there each week — 25 percent — will be packing heat.
“Definitely, Pittsburgh sparked the interest,” the rabbi said regarding gun ownership. “Originally it was much more of a taboo topic in the community. … Definitely people are much more understanding of the idea. There’s more and more problems and things happening.”
Supporters and opponents of guns in synagogue who spoke to JTA repeated familiar arguments on both sides of the debate. Rabbis who don’t want firearms in their congregations said that more guns could mean more injury or death — inadvertent or not — as well as the growth of what they call an already problematic gun culture.
But supporters of armed congregants say that with responsible training, they are a necessary defense in an age of frequent mass shootings. Call it the good Jewish guy with a gun.
“We don’t want to be looked at as an easy target,” said Rabbi Stuart Federow of Shaar Hashalom, a Conservative synagogue in Houston that allows the concealed carry of handguns, but not open carry. “People understand when seconds count, the police are minutes away. They understand that they have to take personal responsibility for those they love. After Pittsburgh, members of my congregation are very alert when someone walks into the building.”
In Texas, where more than a third of residents own guns, the fault line isn’t between whether to allow or ban guns, but whether to allow open carry as well as concealed guns. Congregation Shearith Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Dallas, also bans open carry but not concealed carry. Rabbi Ari Sunshine said that he assumes some congregants bring guns to synagogue, and that in the Lone Star State, a blanket prohibition on guns would not come up.
“We’re a synagogue, we want to preserve a sacred space, and the idea of having guns in full view, that’s just not part of the idea of the sanctity of a sacred space,” he said.
Not all synagogues are growing more comfortable with guns in the pews, however.
Truthfully, most synagogues are products of the societies that surround them. Synagogues in Texas, for example, are more likely to embrace a pro-gun approach than those in New York City.
Still, considering their cultural history as well as recent events, I’m more surprised than I can articulate that any synagogue would outright oppose the right of Jews to keep and bear arms, yet they do.
Then again, anti-gunners are anti-gunners, and they come from all religions. Even one with a history of being oppressed like the Jews, for some unimaginable reason.