Houston Jewish Herald Voice and JTA – A Houston synagogue is stepping up its security practices after a woman who said she was motivated by messianic beliefs to destroy it entered unnoticed.
Ezra Law broke into the Emanu El community in the early hours of January 14, damaging both the building and a Torah scroll. After spending six hours in the building – including drinking wine and spilling on one of the Torah scrolls – she was spotted by security personnel before the Shabbat service and subsequently arrested.
Law was soon released on bail, but instead of showing up for her court hearing, she returned to Emanu El on Friday to disrupt a preschool class and molest young children before escaping. Law was arrested again later that day and released for a second time on Sunday.
That night, she posted online that she had targeted the synagogue in retaliation for being previously rejected for her belief in Jesus.
The incident, which occurred on the one-year anniversary of the kidnapping of four people at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, has shocked Houston’s Jewish community. It has also led to an investigation into the bugs that twice allowed Law to enter the Emanu-El building.
In the first incident, Law was able to remain undetected and alone in the building because the alarm system was disabled during scheduled maintenance the night before. In the second, she entered the building through a door that had been held open for workers loading equipment into the foyer.
“Our personnel failures and Emanu El security breaches over the past week are totally unacceptable and we make no apologies for them,” Chief Rabbi Oren Hayon said in a joint statement with Emanu El President Stuart Gaylor and Executive Director David Lamden.
The Emanu El incident comes as Jewish communities across the country have spent significant sums developing security systems and training members in security practices, often with the support of Jewish community organizations, in a campaign launched after the Tree of Life bulletin Synagogue 2018 Pittsburgh killing 11 Jews during Shabbat service. The Colleyville rabbi credited this training with enabling him to protect his parishioners and eventually escape their captor during the hostage crisis there.
Last year, the Houston Jewish Association launched a security program as part of the Secure Community Network, a nonprofit Jewish security organization, and hired a retired FBI agent named Al Tribble to be the community’s security director. Tribble, whose mission is to educate synagogues, schools and other local Jewish institutions on how to protect their parishioners, has been involved in responding to the Emanu El incidents.
Hayon said Emanu El has taken several steps to increase security, including during religious school classes on Wednesday and Sunday and by increasing the visible police presence on campus.
The synagogue, a Reformed congregation with thousands of congregants from across Houston, is continuing to determine the extent of the damage caused by the intruder, which includes a broken window and wine stains on the back of a Torah scroll and a rug.
“The damage is immeasurable,” Harris County Assistant District Attorney Erica Winsor told local media.
“The events of the past week have left many of us concerned for our safety and that of our loved ones,” Hayon told the Jewish Herald-Voice. “Our safety team is committed to ensuring the safety of community members, employees and especially our children.”
Security personnel held Law after spotting her at the synagogue on January 14 until Houston police officers arrived to arrest her. As a condition of her release on bail, she was forbidden to be within 450 meters of the gathering.
After her release, Law posted messages targeting Emanuel El on her social media accounts. “Cost of spilling red wine on Rabbi’s robes at Emanu El Synagogue Houston Congregation: $1,500,” reads one of the posts. “Cost of the royal blood of Jesus Christ shed for your sins on the cross so that you may be born again in my kingdom: Priceless.”
Law’s Instagram profile, where she has continued to post about her vendetta against Emanu El even after her second arrest, suggests that she is in her 20s and once worked in tech and traveled extensively, including how she once did posted to Israel. The account, which has posted about celebrating Jewish holidays several times since 2015, has devoted the past few weeks to posts about Jesus and the conversion of Jews to Christianity.
Late Sunday, Law released a screenshot of a statement she allegedly intended to make in court, saying she was taking revenge on the synagogue after being rejected for her belief in Jesus and taking refuge in a messianic synagogue after the second incident had searched. (Messians adopt Jewish practices but believe in the divinity of Jesus, and proselytizing of Jews is a core activity.)
“I would like to point out that I only visited the Emanuel El Synagogue Congregation out of the kindness and generosity of my heart to share the gospel with them,” Law wrote, adding that she didn’t want to spill red wine on a Torah and wanted to order to pay for the repair.
Hayon said that after the initial incident, Emanu El took several steps to increase security, including during religious school classes on Wednesday and Sunday, and increased the visible police presence on campus. Additionally, after several conferences with law enforcement, prosecutors and Tribble, the synagogue and others distributed Law’s social media posts and photos to all Emanu El employees, encouraging them to remain vigilant.
But when Law returned to the Emanu-El campus on Friday, she was able to enter through an open door and sit among early childhood students and staff who were conducting a Shabbat service in a chapel.
The school principal and synagogue cantor recognized Law and immediately ordered security personnel. Guards attempted to remove Law from the chapel, but she fled the building before police arrived. She had been in the building less than five minutes.
A day later, Law was arrested and arrested a second time by law enforcement. She was released again on bail on Sunday.
“Over the last few days we have learned a great deal about the failings of our security systems and the protocols that have not been carefully followed during these times of crisis,” Hayon, Gaylor and Lamden said in their letter to community members. “We have every reason to believe that our campus is safe for you and your families and that all courses and programs at Emanu El will continue as planned this week.”
Emanu El actively – with the support of external experts and consultants – assesses and evaluates its systems, controls and protocols. Several immediate changes include reducing access points to the Emanu El campus; Employing a two-step verification process for visitors and increasing vigilance, reinforcement and communication via existing security protocols.
As a result, students at neighboring Rice University may no longer be able to traverse the Emanu El campus to get to and from the graduate residences, which are north of the synagogue.
Emanu El also provides emotional and spiritual care to its employees and community. This support includes the presence of clergy counseling resources and trauma-informed counseling professionals provided by Jewish Family Service Houston.
“We all recognize that this has been a difficult week for everyone and that our homes and our hearts have been weighed down with fear, anxiety and uncertainty,” Emanu El’s statement said.
“It is by opening ourselves to vulnerability and tenderness that we allow our synagogue to do its most effective work—but for the same reason, if our synagogue ever becomes a place where we feel unsafe or unsafe, the pain will Bruchs bigger even more acute and hurtful.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the Houston Jewish Herald-Voice and is reprinted with permission.