It was just after dark and David Bacall of Los Angeles Shmira was pacing Olympic Boulevard, his thick glasses aglow in the amber strobe atop his SUV as he scanned the crowd outside the synagogue for threats.
Most days, his job is boring, more Walmart greeter than Mossad.
But in the wake of the deadliest attack on Jews in generations — Saturday’s offensive against thousands of civilians in southern Israel — L.A.’s newest security outfit wasn’t about to let its guard down.
“People get motivated by each other,” Bacall said as he stuck bright orange Shmira magnets to the front doors of the SUV with one hand and threaded an earpiece through his fluorescent yellow safety vest with the other. “Anytime there’s an attack on one of us, we all need to raise our level of alert.”
Monday night’s prayer service at Beth Jacob was the second event Shmira volunteers had patrolled that evening, one of scores of impromptu expressions of public grief and outrage held across Los Angeles that day and through the week.
Retired cops and other hired professionals have long stood sentinel outside L.A.’s largest Jewish institutions, a silent acknowledgment of a long-standing threat.
But after the Tree of Life massacre in 2018 — in which a gunman killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue — many smaller communities sought to harden themselves, reviving sleepy volunteer security forces and inspiring new, more militant community defense groups.
For Bacall’s newly awakened Shmira, the Saturday attack by Hamas militants was a call to arms.
“We would have just gone back into our normal operations,” Bacall said. “But in light of the global situation, we’ve asked all of our members to pick an evening that they will be out and about in the major streets, showing a presence, creating a deterrence and using their powers of observation for anything that may be out of sight.”
The word shmira comes from the Hebrew word for “guardian” and is a popular moniker for Jewish security forces and extrajudicial defense groups around the world. Like Hatzolah, the volunteer ambulance corps that operates in Jewish communities around the world, they mostly handle non-emergencies and provide help to those in need regardless of faith or background.
But the neighborhoods Shmira patrols are overwhelmingly Orthodox — densely populated, full of children and virtually incommunicado on the Sabbath and religious festivals, when observant Jews do not use phones.
This past Saturday was both. Bacall and his team had gone shul to shul, trying to avert panic as news of the attack spread through the rumor mill.
“We shared what was going on, we told them to pray for everybody but also to have a higher level of situational awareness,” Bacall said.
Now, it felt as though new events were popping up every hour — prayers for the wounded and captive, vigils for the dead, rallies for Israel — and with them, new threats to deter.
Behind Bacall, throngs of worshipers filed through the metal detectors at Beth Jacob on Monday night carrying small books of Hebrew psalms, a popular talisman, and the text of whispered private prayers — prayers that would now be cried aloud together, in a rare and ritualized howl of pain.
“We’re a small community— none of us is more than two degrees from someone who was killed or taken,” said Shoshana Arunasalam, 29, a member of the synagogue. “We feel helpless.”
Many also carried with them a sense that they too were in danger, even here.
“They warned us not to speak Hebrew in public, or to wear anything that identifies you as a Jew,” said Shira, 20, an Ethiopian Israeli who took a job teaching in L.A. as an alternative to military conscription, and asked to be identified only by her first name out of fear for her safety.
Spasms of hate often surge through diaspora Jewish communities in the wake of Israeli military operations in Gaza, such as the one now unfolding, or the bloody suppression of Palestinian civil unrest in the West Bank.
Mostly, they take the form of spray-painted swastikas, shattered windows and epithets screamed from cars. In recent years, they have also manifested as online threats.
“We’re seeing an uptick online with rhetoric” against both Jews and Muslims, said Haroon Azar, a senior fellow at the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations and a former regional director for the Department of Homeland Security. “It makes everybody antsy across the board.”
Most never manifest in real life. But Jewish Angelenos remain on edge after years of escalating antisemitic violence, seen nationally in deadly attacks at synagogues and kosher stores, and locally with the desecration of Torah scrolls and the public beating of Jewish diners.
Many in the religious enclave of Pico-Robertson were particularly shaken after a gunman hunting Iranian Jews shot two men walking to morning prayers last spring.
Not long after, Shmira’s bright orange signs began popping up on local lawns.
“When those shootings happened, we now had resources and people to step [up] our game,” Bacall said. “Now we’re at that next level, we want to be able to continue, and in order to do that, we need more trained volunteers.”
The plan was to regroup after the fall holidays. But by Monday morning, recruitment calls were speeding through synagogue WhatsApp groups.
“Everyone’s nerves are a little shot,” Bacall said. “People kept their kids home from school; they didn’t go to shul.”
Still, the scope of the attack had moved many others to pray together.
Inside the prayer service, a thousand people vied for seats in the narrow auditorium. Men filled the middle, with women on both sides, separated by a wood and glass wall, called a mechitza, that Orthodox communities use for prayer.
Unlike the bulk of Jewish worship, which must be done in public, tehillim are prayers most commonly whispered alone, in private supplication.
Monday night they were said through tears, out loud, in a cacophony of accents — the lyric diphthongs and soft Ss of Yiddish crashing against the tight vowels and sharp Ts of modern Hebrew — a reminder of the multitude of Jewish ethnicities that call LA. home.
This demographic melange is one reason Jewish Angelenos in particular were shaken by the attacks. A large minority of local Jews and more than half of Israelis trace their roots to the Middle East and Africa, while the overwhelming majority of American Jews are descended from Eastern European emigres.
L.A. is home to almost 30,000 Israeli citizens and an additional 5,000 of their children, according to a 2021 study by Brandeis University.
It is also home to some 48,000 Russian-speaking Jews, whose community in Israel numbers more than a million.
And more than 50,000 Iranian Jews live here — more than anywhere outside Israel, where the overwhelming majority now reside.
Many, like Arunasalam, were waiting for news of friends who were missing or had been confirmed as abducted by Hamas militants during the attack and what Israel has now declared as war.
“It’s comforting to be with each other,” she said. “We’ve had a revolving door of people coming to sit in our living room because we don’t want to be alone.”
Others were mourning dead relatives and fretting over family who’d been called up to fight.
“My friends, my cousins, all of my family are being called up to serve,” said Shira, the Israeli teacher. “It’s hard to be in America when my country needs me.”
This diverse demographic reality also makes prayer services more challenging to patrol.
“What does a Jew look like?” Bacall asked with cheerful shrug. “Here, we have to watch how someone behaves.”
Hence, the Walmart shtick. Bacall and his crew called ‘hello’ to almost every person who passed them that night, simply to watch them react.
They also worked hard keeping kibitzers off the street.
“Our people, we’re schmoozers,” Bacall lamented as he prodded his landsmen to move it along. “But a hundred people on the street is a target.”
By 9 o’clock, the crowd finally had dispersed. Bacall let the orange strobe stop spinning and pulled the radio from his ear.
Just then, a bearded man in a hoodie walked past, pushing two toddlers in a double stroller.
Bacall waved. The toddlers waved back. Their father pointed.
“Look,” he told his children. “They’re all protecting us.”