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Houses of worship are trying to balance safety with their mission to welcome all


The siege of a Texas synagogue last weekend has houses of worship around the nation once again reviewing security measures. Today, more than 7,000 Jewish leaders gathered online to hear lessons learned from the FBI and from the rabbi who was held hostage. Hundreds of other leaders attended a training session on how to identify and respond to threats.

NPR's Tovia Smith has been following. She joins us now. And Tovia, this is intriguing. What was the key takeaway today?

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Well, it was both a cautionary tale and, in other ways, a kind of textbook how-to. Synagogues, of course, were already well aware of the threat, and they know that sanctuaries are no longer the sanctuaries that they once were. But one critical caution here, as Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker told the group today - when he opened the door to the gunman, thinking the guy was in need, he saw no red flags.


CHARLIE CYTRON-WALKER: You know, like, the sense of nervousness - the darting around, the - like, those kinds of things that you might expect - he was calm. He was able to look me in the eye, so I didn't have a lot of suspicions.

SMITH: Earlier today, security experts were also offering more specialized instruction on how to make those assessments, and FBI Director Christopher Wray stressed the importance of the community as eyes and ears since terrorists, he says, are most likely now lone actors.


CHRISTOPHER WRAY: Which means there are a lot fewer dots, if you will, to connect, and that means that we all have to make sure that the one dot that maybe one of your members has is brought forward with the one dot that we might have so that we can disrupt the attack.

SMITH: Especially, security folks warned, since al-Qaida and others have been calling this hostage-taker inspirational.

KELLY: You know, I interviewed the rabbi on the program last night, and we talked about what unfolded once that man was inside and how Rabbi Charlie managed to throw a chair and get himself and the other congregants out safely. What are the lessons there?

SMITH: Well, what that's really doing is driving more focus to what they call right of boom. So left of boom is before things go bad. It's the prevention, like door locks and lighting and cameras and fencing and screening people.


SMITH: Right of boom is after all that fails, which generally falls along the lines of run, hide, fight, which is what the rabbi did, as you said he was able to do. There was also talk today of other tools, like panic buttons and emergency apps that connect immediately to help, and about more active shooter trainings for every congregant just like schools now do for every student. So the training is really everything from stop the intruder to stop the bleeding - literally, you know, how to tie tourniquets.

KELLY: I mean, it all speaks to the tension that houses of worship have sadly been having to grapple with for years now - that very fine line between security and wanting to be open. Is that fine line shifting, Tovia?

SMITH: It varies. Some are resigning themselves to what they see as a new reality, where protecting lives just must trump everything else. Others fear that making synagogues feel more like fortresses would do more harm than good 'cause that's just incompatible with their mission. And some, like many - like Rabbi Elaine Zecher of Temple Israel in Boston, are trying to strike a balance.

ELAINE ZECHER: You know, Abraham and Sarah's tent was open from all four sides, and so we certainly have open doors - maybe not all of them.

SMITH: But Rabbi Zecher, I should say, was adamant that the more synagogues get vigilant about security, the more they also need to be vigilant about their messaging around openness - so stepping up signage, for example, or social media or greeters.

KELLY: Right.

SMITH: And one more balancing act I'll note - places, it was said today, need to make sure, yes, that strangers feel welcome to come in...

KELLY: Right.

SMITH: ...But they also need to make sure that congregants feel safe to come back because that's...

KELLY: All right.

SMITH: ...Critical to the mission, too.

KELLY: NPR's Tovia Smith reporting. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.