One year ago next Sunday, a gunman armed with a Colt semi-automatic rifle and three Glock semi-automatic pistols walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and opened fire, killing 11 and injuring seven others.
For Champaign County’s top prosecutor, the tragedy hit home. In addition to her title of state’s attorney, JULIA RIETZ also serves as vice president of the board of trustees at Champaign’s Sinai Temple and as a member of a newly formed committee charged with improving security there.
The group “came about after the shooting in Pittsburgh,” Rietz said. “As we worked on security at Sinai Temple, I reached out to my law-enforcement partners and my federal partners.”
The ultimate result of those efforts is the Protecting Places of Worship Forum, to be held from 1 to 4:30 p.m. Thursday at Sinai and hosted by Rabbi ALAN COOK.
Clergy and members of all area faith communities are invited to the free forum, a joint effort between the U.S. Department of Justice Community Relations Service, Sinai Temple, the cities of Champaign and Urbana and the University of Illinois.
Decatur hosted a similar event in September, and “our churches have been asking for something like this for a while,” said Champaign Police Chief ANTHONY COBB.
Speakers will include Cook, Rietz, U.S. Attorney JOHN MILHISER, the FBI’s ROY BEHNING, First Assistant U.S. Attorney DOUGLAS QUIVEY, Illinois Emergency Management Agency Director ALICIA TATE-NADEAU and UI Emergency Planning Coordinator SHERRY WOOTEN.
“The forum will provide information and practical safety tips on ways to prevent or respond to hate crimes against places of worship,” said the city of Champaign’s RACHEL JOY, who added that county law enforcement representatives will also take part.
Among the other topics to be discussed: an overview of religious hate crimes, what emergency planning steps can be taken and how to fortify places of worship.
“We’ll be talking about target hardening,” Cobb said. “For example, there was a time when all the doors were open at schools. It’s not that way any more. Schools became more aware as a result of active shooter incidents.
“Now, all school doors are locked in the city of Champaign, and you have to get buzzed in. Some churches have gone to systems like that.
“Some churches may say they want to lock all the doors down once services start. Little things like that can make a big difference if you are talking about active shooters.”
Security concerns at places of worship are not new to the area.
In 1998, a bomb exploded during a worship service at the First Assembly of God Church in Danville.
A year earlier, a man was killed when a bomb exploded at the Oakwood United Methodist Church.
More recently, a menorah outside the Chabad Center for Jewish Life on the UI campus was vandalized three times in 10 months.
Illini Chabad Rabbi DOVID TIECHTEL believes next week’s event will provide a needed service.
“We want to see all the good ways to help each other, and it is great that people of all faiths are coming together for this,” Tiechtel said.