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Jewish groups ban concealed weapons

By Lynne Kleinman

December 1st, 2011

Many Jewish congregations and organizations statewide will effectively ban concealed weapons on their premises.

Sign prohibiting concealed weapons on Milwaukee Jewish Federation-owned properties.

Sign prohibiting concealed weapons on Milwaukee Jewish Federation-owned properties.

They are formulating these policies in response to the state’s new concealed carry law, 2011 Wisconsin Act 35, which took effect Nov. 1.

Under the new law, institutions in Wisconsin must post signs at each of their entrances if they wish to ban employees and visitors from bringing concealed weapons onto the property.

Following exhaustive research spearheaded by Ari Friedman, Milwaukee Jewish Federation manager of community properties — in which federations throughout the country were surveyed, discussions with people at MJF agencies and on the MJF board of directors were held, and advice from people in law, law enforcement, real estate, and insurance was sought — MJF’s Executive Committee voted Nov. 2 to mandate posting signs banning weapons at agencies housed in MJF-owned properties.

“We were responding to our constituent agencies, all of which wanted to post signs,” said Jerry Benjamin, president of the MJF, in a telephone interview Nov. 15. “We wanted people [in our agencies] to understand that we heard them, and that we were being responsive to their needs.”

MJF agencies that are not housed in MJF-owned properties — such as Jewish Family Services and Yeshiva Elementary School — are not subject to MJF policy regarding the posting of signs. Nor are residential facilities owned by MJF included in this mandate.

Benjamin said that while he thought the decision to post signs banning concealed weapons “is the best policy for right now,” this policy might change as the ramifications of the new law became clearer.

He and Friedman both said they did not want the restrictions to be misconstrued as a political statement or judgment about the right to bear arms in the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment.

“Putting up signs is not a political act in any way,” Benjamin said. “This is strictly about what we think is right for our community.”

Safety first

In interviews with officials of Jewish organizations and congregations around the state, safety was repeatedly identified as the key issue.

“Especially important in our decision to post signs was our concern for the safety of the children,” said Jill Hagler, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Madison, in a telephone interview Nov. 11. “We have a preschool on the bottom floor of our building, and under the current legislation, private preschools are not included.”

According to “Wisconsin’s New Carrying Concealed Weapon Law — Questions and Answers,” a brief summary of the law published Oct. 20 by the Wisconsin Department of Justice, a “school” is defined as a public, parochial, private or tribal school “which provides an educational program for one or more grades between grades 1 and 12 and which is commonly known as an elementary school, middle school, junior high school, senior high school, or high school.”

Under this definition, concealed weapons are not banned from day care facilities or from after-school or weekend educational programs, unless signs prohibiting them are posted.

Larry Gordon, president of Mt. Sinai Congregation in Wausau, said safety concerns were the “main reason” his board decided to post the signs.

“Our synagogue is one where you have a large presence of children,” he said in a telephone interview Nov. 14. “We want to keep it safe — to avoid any possibility of an unintentional accident.”

Gordon described a hypothetical scenario in which a child could find and accidentally discharge a weapon that the mother was carrying in her purse.

Further, he doubted that a congregant or visitor who was not trained in the use of a concealed firearm could effectively defend against an intruder intent on inflicting harm, but could unintentionally injure bystanders.

In a telephone interview Nov. 8, Friedman said safety was the greatest concern of the MJF Executive Committee. Factors such as accidental firing of weapons, weapons being used in moments of passion, and weapons being used against armed intruders were all considered, he said.

Liability issues

According to the DOJ’s summary of the new law, private business or property owners that allow carrying concealed weapons on their property by persons holding the required permit is generally not legally liable if someone is injured or killed by the permit holder using the weapon.

Under the law, the same immunity from liability is not, however, extended to businesses or property owners choosing to ban concealed weapons on their property, and giving notice with signs at their entrances.

Yet, a number of published reviews and commentaries on the new law hold that the liability of organizations and institutions that ban concealed weapons on their property does not effectively change from what it was before the law was enacted.

In an article entitled, “Wisconsin’s Concealed Carry Law as it May Affect Churches,” published on the Internet in September 2011, Stephen L. Knowles, an attorney with Borgelt, Powell, Peterson & Frauen S.C., a Milwaukee law firm, wrote:

“The legal situation of a congregation that decides to prohibit concealed weapons would be the same after Act 35 becomes effective as it is right now: potential liability for negligence causing harm to a member or visitor and potential liability under worker’s compensation law for harm caused to an employee.”

Acknowledging that their position might change as the concealed carry law takes effect and is tested in the courts, officials of organizations interviewed expressed confidence, at least for now, that posting signs banning weapons under the new law would not increase their liability.

The Madison federation adopted a policy banning “any individual (employee, intern, volunteer or other)” from carrying weapons, “concealed or otherwise” — including weapons other than those specified in the law — while conducting JFM business on the grounds of the Max Weinstein Jewish Community Building in Madison and the Irwin A. and Robert D. Goodman campus in Verona, Wis., and while conducting JFM business away from either of these locations.

Hagler said that should this policy result in increased liability, it would still be “more important not to have weapons.”

She said both Temple Beth El and Beth Israel Center agreed. Each of these Madison congregations has its own building, and both were collaborating with JFM and adopting similar policies.

In an email Nov. 12, Rabbi Dena Feingold of Beth Hillel Temple in Kenosha said that before her synagogue adopted its policy of not allowing weapons, “We consulted with other URJ [Union for Reform Judaism] congregations, local churches, and other religious institutions, with help from the Wisconsin Council of Churches…. We also consulted with our insurance agent and an attorney.”

Before the board of Mt. Sinai Congregation adopted its policy, it waited to see how other institutions in Wausau were responding to the law, said Rabbi Dan Danson in a telephone interview Nov. 8.

Danson’s friend and colleague, the Rev. Stephen Wright, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Wausau, said in a telephone interview Nov. 9 that his church had decided to ban concealed weapons.

Fredrick J. Safer is an attorney with the Safer & Stein Law Firm S.C. in Milwaukee. He also is a past president of Congregation Beth Israel in Glendale, and he drafted the resolution adopted by the CBI board banning weapons on the synagogue’s premises.

“I think it is a matter of principle to state the premises are non-violent,” Safer said in a Nov. 13 email.

“Will a sign on the door prevent someone entering with a weapon — no,” Safer continued. “If someone wants to be violent we do not have guards at the door. We do not have metal detectors. But in the environment of today, someone and/or some institutions need to stand up and say no to violence. Certainly religious institutions need to be in the forefront of that statement.”

Contrasting view

However, at least one Jewish group takes a different stance on this matter: Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership.

This organization was founded and directed by Wisconsinite Aaron Zelman, who died last December. Its website still lists a post office box and telephone numbers in Hartford, Wis.; but its new executive director is Charles Heller of Tucson, Ariz.

In a discussion of the Wisconsin Jewish groups’ policies in a telephone interview Nov. 15, Heller said, “To be morally consistent, [the organizations] must immediately stop supporting Israel.” There, he said, synagogues allow firearms inside.

The policy actually increases the danger to congregations, Heller said, adding that posting a sign is tantamount to “putting a bull’s eye on the congregation.”

“It’s telling people, ‘Come shoot us, we’re disarmed,’” he said. “It’s just ignorant. Did they learn nothing from the Holocaust?”

Heller cited the work of orthodox Rabbi Dovid Bendory, JPFO’s rabbinic director, who not only teaches the Torah ethics of personal defense and gun use, but also takes people to the firing range and teaches them to shoot.

“The Torah is very clear that you have not only the right, but the actual obligation to defend yourself,” Bendori said in an interview published on the JPFO website. “G-d has given you life, a most precious gift, and it is your responsibility to honor that gift.”

Heller said houses of worship should designate some members to be armed and able to respond to immediate threats of violence.

He said he did not, however, favor laws mandating formal training in the use of firearms, and agreed with the recent decision of the Wisconsin legislature to drop the minimum four-hour training required for a permit under the concealed carry law as originally enacted.

In his view, Heller said, individual responsibility for acquiring appropriate training was preferable to legislative mandates. He said the proper use of firearms is “a learnable skill.”

Heller said he knew of no statistics suggesting an increase in accidents involving firearms in Arizona since the state law allowing residents to carry concealed weapons without a permit went into effect in 2010. He said the concern about accidents is “just a phobia by people about firearms.”

Today, JPFO — which is open to Jews and non-Jews — has approximately 6,000 paid members internationally, said LaVonne Schuett, the organization’s business manager, in a telephone interview Nov. 16. She said JPFO has about 12,000 individuals on its e-mail list.

Lynne Kleinman, Ph.D., a retired teacher and journalist, is currently working with a group developing “Jewish Neighbors in Wisconsin: A Web-based Curriculum,” a project of the Wisconsin Society for Jewish Learning, Inc.