Sign In Forgot Password

Let me start with a rather grim picture. Over the years, dozens of unhoused denizens of Venice have camped overnight on the portico at the top of Mishkon’s steps. Indeed, often two parties at a time have lodged there, one at each end. Some of them have been respectful of our premises and careful to pick up after themselves, but unfortunately many have not. Both our staff and passersby have occasionally faced belligerence and intimidation from persons camped on our premises. And for years now, almost daily, our staff has been cleaning up urine, feces, used hypodermic needles, and garbage. This is biohazardous waste: It is not only distasteful to deal with but also can cause physical injury as well as serious diseases such as hepatitis.

A 2017 Security Assessment (sponsored by the Jewish Federation) suggested that Mishkon install a gated fence on the property line to “project territoriality and property ownership,” citing a report from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (FEMA-428/BIPS-07). The idea is that crimes can be prevented by proper attention to the built environment. Thus, a fence not only helps to control access but also expresses a sense of ownership — “this place matters to us” — that acts as a deterrent.

In addition, both reports address another kind of security threat, namely the prospect of a terrorist attack. The authors promote an approach to site security design called “layers of defense.” These are consecutive, independent protective measures deployed in concentric circles around a secured area. A perimeter fence is a standard component in such a design.

The federal report notes that a perimeter fence does not need to be imposing or impenetrable in order to significantly improve security with respect to both trespassing and attack. To be on the safe side, Mishkon has repeatedly applied for federal security-grant funding for a  permanent wrought-iron picket fence. However, for better or worse, other applicants have received the limited funding so far.

Meanwhile, Mishkon’s board has been concerned to do what it can, within budgetary constraints, to protect our staff from an unsafe work environment, to enable Mishkon be a responsible neighbor on Main Street (by not harboring belligerents), and to protect attendees from being attacked by haters. I’m told that this topic has been discussed by the board on and off for at least eight years. On at least three occasions, the board has authorized getting bids for various kinds of fencing. For a variety of reasons, such feelers have so far not culminated in an actual fence.

For the past 10 months, in a bid to take action on Mishkon’s behalf, I have been planning for a wrought-iron picket fence across the front of our sanctuary. During that time, I have spoken or corresponded with a wide range of interests: synagogue historians, Mishkon staff and members who have worked on this issue in the past, four different fence vendors, masons, prospective donors, the police department, the fire department, the building department, the planning department, a surveyor, an expeditor, the Venice Business Improvement District (BID), an official at the Venice Neighborhood Council, owners of the adjacent buildings, and others.

In the process, my understanding as to where a fence would best be sited, and my opinion about what it should look like (and not look like!) has evolved considerably. Yet the biggest change for me has been the realization (thanks to members of my committee) that a fence is not just a neutral piece of the physical plant. Rather, it’s something that people often have strong judgments and feelings about. All members would surely be affected by the presence of a fence and the need to go through a gate whenever you attend events in the sanctuary or social hall. Furthermore, you might well care what message a particular fence design would send to the broader community.

Lately, I have been looking for ways to engage Mishkon’s membership more widely in the conversation — that is, beyond the board level. So with the gracious support of the Adult Education Committee and the synagogue staff, on January 9 I met with more than a dozen Mishkon households via Zoom, in order to educate one another about the considerations to be taken into account with respect to a fence. (Ultimately, the board has the privilege of — and responsibility for — actually making such decisions.)

The challenges that have repeatedly prompted the board to consider a fence are not new ones, when viewed in historical perspective. Upon adopting such a perspective, I have learned that the front fences of American synagogues have usually been installed so as to accomplish multiple goals at once. Fences are not only about improving the safety of staff and of attendees, signaling pride of owner­ship, and keeping the premises in decent condition. In addition, they have been used to set off the sanctuary as a sacred space from the mundane world of passers­by and to beautify the facility and its surrounding area.

So that people could learn from the Jewish past, my program featured a slide show that can be viewed here. It shows 16 façades in chronological order from 1794 to 1921, involving 13 synagogues (that is, in some cases the same congregation has occupied different buildings). The purview is limited to the American milieu only, given my understanding that the architectural conditions in other countries are quite different. And I tended to choose façades in which columns are prominent elements, as is true for Mishkon.

During the slide show and ensuing discussion, the questions posed — and by no means answered definitively — included: How would passing through this particular gate (in both directions) affect your overall experience of visiting this synagogue? What kind of fence would be architecturally compatible with our Classical Revival building façade? And how well would a given potential fence design meet each of the various goals mentioned above?

At the moment, I can’t predict where this endeavor will end up. Nonetheless, I’d like to think that we’re in it together. For just the act of considering our options and clarifying our values is a kind of Torah study. And it’s an exercise in exploring how to be Jewish in America today, which can be a sacred journey. Thus, I invite you to join me in thoughtful conversation.

Mon, June 5 2023 16 Sivan 5783