Protecting Diaspora synagogues with Jewish technology

| January 5, 2010

It was never easy being a Jew.

But with security concerns on the rise in many Jewish communities across the globe, local rabbis are struggling to protect themselves and their congregations from potential attacks while at the same time adhering to Jewish law.

Electronic monitors, security cameras, intercoms and automatic door locks become major obstacles for Jews who keep to Orthodox directives that equate the use of electricity with lighting fire, a strictly forbidden act on Shabbat.

On one hand, the Orthodox rabbi wants to ensure that Jewish souls do not sin on God's holy day of rest. But at the same time the rabbi, as a community leader, is also responsible for keeping vulnerable people out of harm's way.

In Europe, where there are threats of Muslim terrorism and right-wing xenophobia, as well as in South America or South Africa where there is petty crime, entrances to synagogues are often carefully guarded.

To enter, visitors must pass through a security gauntlet that includes closed-circuit TVs and electronically locked gates. During the week it's a cinch. All an observant Jew has to do is push a button.

But what is one to do on Shabbat, the day most Jews visit the synagogue?

On Monday, Rabbi Israel Rosen from the Tzomet Institute presented to dozens of Diaspora rabbis kosher solutions; a wide range of security gadgets that could be used on Shabbat to protect synagogues and Jewish community centers.

His presentation was made during a conference being held in Jerusalem's Ramada Hotel by the Department for Religious Affairs in the Diaspora in the World Zionist Organization.

The newest gadget is called "Chash Shinui" or "Feels Change." It detects electric charges given off by a human hand and changes certain electric currents – without actually turning them on or off.

As a result, a light gets brighter or a buzz gets louder to notify a guard, or a magnetic lock that can withstand hundreds of kilograms of pressure gets weaker to allow the opening of a door or a gate.

Metal detectors are equipped with a gauge, instead of a noisy beeper and lights, that detects changes in an electric field caused by a knife, handgun or grenade.

Reactions to Rosen's technologies, which have the backing of leading halachic authorities, were mixed in the audience of rabbis.

While some were enthusiastic, others complained that the pervasive use of electric gadgets ruined the restful atmosphere of Shabbat.

Rosen, who spoke with The Jerusalem Post after the presentation, admitted that unlike in Israel where many institutions and private individuals used Tzomet's technologies, in the Diaspora, reactions were often lukewarm.

"Religious Zionists are relatively weak in the Diaspora," said Rosen. "Haredi rabbis often are fundamentally opposed to any kind of technological advancement connected with Halacha. They prefer to use a gentile as a Shabbes goy," added Rosen, referring to the practice common among Jewish communities of getting assistance from non-Jews, who are not commanded to observe Shabbat.

In the words of one Diaspora rabbi, who preferred to remain anonymous: "Who needs it? We can just tell a gentile to open the gate, and the local police patrol the area around the synagogue."

Nevertheless, Rosen said that communities in Italy and Germany made use of Tzomet's kosher gadgets.

In Israel, there are a combination of factors, explained Rosen, that made Tzomet's solutions more popular. First, there is less reliance on non-Jews. Second, there is more awareness of security issues. And finally, there are more religious Zionist rabbis in prominent positions who are open to the use of state-of-the-art technologies to prevent Shabbat desecration.

Rosen said that at the entrance to the Kotel there was a metal detector that worked in accordance with the Chash-Shinui. Other institutions that used the technology included the IDF, which has introduced more of Tzomet's solutions during the stint of the present IDF Chief Rabbi Brig.-Gen. Avichai Ronsky, and hospitals that belong to the Clalit Health Fund.

 

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Category: Synagogue/Jewish Security