When Pam Kutner heard the shot, she froze.
Kutner, the executive director of Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, participated in active shooter training two years ago where trainees were instructed to run, hide or fight when a simulated gunshot exploded. But she said she couldn’t move once it was done.
“I’ve never heard that sound before,” she said.
After last weekend’s hostage situation in Colleyville, Texas, she said she aimed to practice and apply the lessons of this muscle memory training.
On January 15, a gunman held four hostages in a standoff that lasted about 11 hours at Colleyville’s Congregation Beth Israel, a synagogue northeast of Fort Worth unaffiliated with Kutner’s. The FBI said Friday it considers the incident an act of terrorism and a hate crime.
The four hostages escaped before FBI agents shot and killed the suspect, authorities said. A rabbi who was among the hostages said going through training scenarios on how to deal with active threats prepared him for the day.
These types of trainings are now commonplace. Texas faith leaders, concerned about violence and threats to houses of worship in recent years, have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless hours on training, security and preventative measures in the event of an attack .
“You just know that’s the reality of your life, because you’re so used to anti-Semitism, and you’re so used to hearing all these horrible things,” Kutner said. “We have to protect ourselves.”
A history of violence
Religious communities in Texas have been the target of several deadly attacks in recent years. In 2017, a gunman opened fire inside First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, killing 26 people and injuring 20 others – the deadliest shooting at a US house of worship in modern history.
In 2019, days after Christmas, a gunman attacked the West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement, killing two people and injuring one.
Hate crimes committed against people because of their religion accounted for 20% of all hate crimes reported in the United States to the FBI between 2015 and 2020. In 2020, the percentage was lower than the average at 15%. However, the FBI’s reporting of hate crimes is considered a gross undercount because it relies on local police to voluntarily submit data, according to a 2019 report by the US Civil Rights Commission.
In addition, attacks and acts of hatred against Jews are on the increase. Over the past five years, anti-Semitic incidents have increased by 60%, according to the Anti-Defamation League, an anti-hate organization. Supporters fear last weekend’s hostage-taking could trigger further violence and threats.
Kutner said preparing for potential attacks is only part of being Jewish.
Congregation Beth Israel of Houston typically spends about $175,000 a year to hire Houston law enforcement officers to patrol its campus, she said. The synagogue is large — with an annual budget of $5 million — while its budget for security personnel is substantial, Kutner said it is manageable.
On a normal day, there are at least two guards present at all times, carrying firearms and wearing full police gear. This number increases according to the number of worshipers who are expected to visit the synagogue.
Kutner said his synagogue has always spent a lot of time, energy and money on security. The building has bulletproof windows, a recording system to know who is on campus at all times, and cameras that cover “every square inch” of the property. Whenever the building is in use, at least one security guard must be present.
During the major Jewish holidays, precautions are even greater. More than 1,500 worshipers could be in the building, she said, so the synagogue employs up to 15 security guards, as well as bomb-sniffing dogs.
At the Islamic Center of San Antonio, Fridays are the busiest days of worship. But the visitors who join them, up to half a dozen off-duty armed law enforcement officers, are on patrol. Security cameras protrude from the building, keeping a recording just in case.
Like the Houston Synagogue, the San Antonio Mosque is constantly on guard against attacks.
Religious groups have always been the target of hatred, said Michael Martin, spokesman for the center. Although the mosque has never faced an attack, he said it could be next at any time.
“We see it in the news all the time,” Martin said. “It’s not if it’s going to happen. It’s when it’s going to happen.
Volunteers and training
But not all religious organizations pay security guards weekly.
In 2019, Texas made it legal for visitors to carry firearms inside places of worship unless congregational leaders prohibit them. And in 2017, Texas passed a law that makes it legal for churches to have armed volunteer guards. Many congregations enlist their own members to watch carefully – and use deadly force if necessary.
In the 2019 church shooting in White Settlement, the carnage stopped when the shooter was shot dead by the head of the church’s volunteer security team.
Companies like Fort Worth-based Protex Firearms Training specialize in training churches that are unwilling or unable to afford to hire security.
“It is our duty to preserve life,” said Eric Ogea, who runs Protex and has trained churches on what to do during attacks. “And sometimes to preserve life is to defend life.”
Ogea teaches people to have an exit strategy before confronting an intruder. The congregation needs to know where the exits are, who will call 911, and if there is a medical expert in the group.
But Ogea also teaches his clients a last resort – to use deadly force. Ogea trains religious leaders and worshipers in gun safety and the use of weapons when necessary.
The Department of Homeland Security provides money to places of worship and other organizations at high risk of becoming targets of terrorism to help them strengthen security against attacks and hate crimes.
Kutner said synagogues rely on those funds to help pay for security efforts. However, this money does not pay for permanent security staff, she said. If those funds were freed up to do so, she said it could be a game-changer, especially in smaller houses of worship that can’t afford security otherwise.
Many anti-hate advocates have also called for these funds to be increased, and those calls grew louder after last weekend’s attack.
Being Welcoming vs. Being Ready
Ellen Smith, 20, has attended Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville since she was a child. And when the gunman held her rabbi hostage, she listened in horror to a live stream as events unfolded until it was cut.
Smith said she believes she will continue to carry that anxiety with her in religious spaces. On Monday, she attended a healing service at a church near her synagogue intended to bring the community together after the attack.
“Every time the back door opened in the middle of service, I tensed up,” she said. “And I think that’s how it’s going to be in the future — it’ll always be on my mind no matter where I go, if it’s a Jewish space.”
Smith drew comparisons to the school shooting drills she took in high school. She said she always keeps an eye out for exits and has an evacuation plan in case of an active shooter.
“I think now it will be the same kind of thought process that I would have walking into a synagogue,” she said.
Still, Smith said she does not support the presence of armed police in religious spaces.
“My understanding of Judaism specifically [is that] it should be a welcoming space where everyone feels welcome and safe,” she said. “And I think that while it may make some people feel safe, it may also prevent other people from entering, such as Jews of color or Jews with criminal records or even homeless people who are looking for a safe place to enter.”
She feels the same way about worshipers carrying guns.
“I think if someone had a gun on Saturday, this situation might not have ended with every hostage getting out safely,” she said. “Personally, I wouldn’t feel safe if people had guns on the wards.”
Kutner, of the Houston Synagogue, said she believes the benefits of having police present outweigh the potential costs.
“I believe safety is much more important than hospitality,” Kutner said.
She noted that officers know congregants by name and are a familiar and friendly presence. And although her synagogue does not allow worshipers to carry firearms inside, she said she would consider employing volunteer security guards if lack of funds made it impossible to hire police.
Kutner said members of religious organizations must be prepared to put safety first. She thinks the Colleyville situation could have been avoided by simply not opening the door.
Last weekend’s shooter reportedly entered the synagogue after knocking on the glass door. The rabbi, Charlie Cytron-Walker, let him in and made him a cup of tea.
“Would you open the door of your house to a homeless person? I mean, I wouldn’t,” Kutner said. “So that’s something we’ve talked to the staff about as well. … We also rely on the staff to be alert to notice things and determine whether or not to open the door.
But Cytron-Walker said he would offer a stranger a cup of tea again.
“He was an individual,” he told NPR. “Even if they don’t look like the stereotypical person who is going to walk into a Jewish synagogue, I want them there. … I want them to know they’re going to belong. Hospitality means the world.
That’s the struggle, Kutner said: Ultimately, faith leaders must balance their desire to foster welcoming, friendly places with practices that could potentially save lives.
“It’s just the world we live in,” Kutner said.
This article was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that educates — and engages with — Texans about public policy, politics, government and issues in the world. statewide.