Finding the Right Balance

Posted on January 15, 2020 by Leigh Miller

Our family had the opportunity to spend the holidays in London this year. I often travel there for business, but other than a lovely view of the Tower Bridge outside my conference room window, I rarely have a chance to enjoy the sights and venues of the city. This was our first trip there as a family, and it turned out to be a wonderful place for the four of us to have some increasingly rare time together. Most of our time was spent walking through the various parts of the city, visiting shops, enjoying high tea to celebrate my daughter’s 21st birthday and trying to see as many sites as possible, while trying to avoid the huge crowds and long queues that seemed to be everywhere that tourists typically gather.

One of our destinations was Camden Market, a huge shopping district filled with open-air shops, stalls and vendors selling anything from cheap souvenirs to high-end antiques. The place has a bit of a flea-market feel to it, but my son discovered a wonderful cart filled with antique cameras and spent an hour examining the items and bargaining his way to a lovely Nikon film camera from the 1970s. It also turns out that Camden Market is located near the canal system in London that is known as Little Venice. For those who have not been there, the canals are filled with old (and very narrow) barges that have been converted into homes permanently docked along the banks of the canal. One cannot help but to try to peer into the windows of the barges and wonder how anyone can manage to live in such a long and narrow space, powered only by noisy gas generators and the occasional solar panel. Walking along the canals is a unique and fascinating experience that I would recommend as part of any visit to London.

This visit to Camden and Little Venice reminded me of the first time I visited there in October 2018. I was in London on business, and my wife came across to extend our visit for a few extra days. One of the areas she’d read about was Little Venice, so we took a long walk to the outskirts of the city and explored. My memories of that day are filled not only with the lovely sights, but also the terrible news that had come from Pittsburgh. It was October 28, 2018, the day after the Tree of Life Synagogue shootings. My most vivid memory of that day was sitting in a lovely canal-side café spending my evening on the phone with our temple president, rabbi and representatives from many Jewish organizations about our community response to that event.

In retrospect, that day seems to have been a pivot point in how I viewed our world, and similar to Sept. 11, 2001, it has changed my personal perspective on many things. It is difficult to believe that only 14 months have passed between these two visits to London, yet from October 2018 to December 2019, our focus on the safety and security of our community has shifted to become one of our highest priorities at Temple Beth-El.

Over these past 14 months, we’ve formed a Security Committee, engaged with law enforcement and security professionals and prioritized the steps we wish to take to enhance the security of our buildings. Perhaps most importantly, we’ve had success in applying for a grant from the State of New Jersey that will provide funding sources for the next three years. I’m sure many are aware of the visible changes we’ve already made – our wonderful team of shomrim who are ever-present during temple activities, the concrete bollards that protect the exterior of our building (they are growing on me!), along with a bit more visible police presence. But there has also been a great deal of thought and planning behind the scenes as well. In the coming months, there will be further enhancements as we obtain approval for use of the security grant funds. Most of those changes will not be as apparent (exterior cameras, enhancements to our alarm system, special security coatings for windows and doors, etc.) but some changes may be visible as well. We will be sure to keep you informed as we make progress.

Turning back to my visit to London in October 2018, we attended a Friday evening service at a beautiful Reform synagogue in the city. This turned out to be the Friday evening immediately before the Tree of Life Synagogue incident. That London synagogue was enclosed by a high wrought-iron fence, with only one access point through heavy and imposing iron gates, and two rather large men checking each person who arrived for services. Fortunately, the guards had our names because my wife had had the forethought to email the administrator of the synagogue before we arrived to inform them we wished to attend the service. Had she not done that, I sincerely doubt we would have been allowed access to the Shabbat service.

I didn’t think too much about all of this at the time, but from one perspective, I understood it was a city synagogue that probably needed extra security to avoid robbery or vandalism. From another, I was struck by how closed-off from the outside world this made the synagogue appear. And keep in mind that all of this “closure” was already in place on the night before Tree of Life.

Somewhat in contrast to my experience with this London congregation, our goal will be to continue to be welcoming to our community and all who use Temple Beth-El for worship, education, activities and social gatherings – indeed a place that continues to feel like home. We need to do everything we can to ensure that our temple home is a place where we can feel safe and sound – while acknowledging that there are things we can do to stay current and vigilant in an ever-changing world.

Should anyone wish more detail about our ongoing plans related to security or have questions or concerns of any kind, I would encourage you to reach out to Amy Rubin or me. Getting the balance of ensuring the security of our community, while maintaining all the things that make Temple Beth-El our special home, is something we discuss, debate but absolutely agree that we need to get right.

I wish all of you a healthy and happy 2020.

Leigh Miller

Originally published in the April 2020 issue of the Shofar. For more issues of the Shofar, visit the Shofar archives.