‘For People Not To Be Armed, They’re Crazy,’ Says Leader Of Pueblo Synagogue Threatened By White Supremacist

November 5, 2019
The Temple Emanuel synagogue in Pueblo is the second-oldest in Colorado and was completed in 1900.The Temple Emanuel synagogue in Pueblo is the second-oldest in Colorado and was completed in 1900.Jeffrey Beall via Wikimedia/CC
The Temple Emanuel synagogue in Pueblo is the second-oldest in Colorado and was completed in 1900.

Monday night, hours after the FBI announced it thwarted an attack on Temple Emanuel in Pueblo, Mike Atlas-Acuna was wide awake in his home, trying to process the news. 

Atlas-Acuna is the president of Temple Emanuel’s board of directors. As he discussed it with his wife late into the evening, Atlas-Acuña said he was sure of one thing: the synagogue needed even more security.

“We already have armed guards. We already have members of the congregation who are carrying weapons. I have a sign on the outside of our synagogue that says ‘This is not a gun-free zone.’ Churches, synagogues, mosques — places of worship are vulnerable soft targets. And for people not to be armed, they're crazy. I mean, they're just nuts. There's a reality out there and we have to address that reality and that is we have to protect ourselves,” he said.

Now he plans to add security cameras to the outside of the building.

Richard Holzer, a 27-year-old man living in Pueblo, is in custody and charged with a hate crime. He had made anti-Semitic statements and detailed his plans to undercover FBI agents, and according to court documents, Holzer also posted white supremacist views and threats on Facebook.

Jason R Dunn, Dean Phillips, Troy Davenport, r mDavid Zalubowski/AP
Chief Troy Davenport, of the Pueblo, Colo., Police Department, front left, makes a point as Jason R. Dunn, U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado, back left, and Dean Phillips, FBI special agent in charge, look on during a news conference in Denver Monday, Nov. 4, 2019, to annouce the arrest of a man who repeatedly espoused anti-Semitic views in a plot to bomb a historic Colorado synagogue in Pueblo.

When Atlas-Acuña heard details from the FBI and in media reports, his first reaction was gratitude for the actions of law enforcement. 

“In reality, it was never a real, real threat to us, because they had him contained,” he said. “They were just trying to gather the evidence to make the arrest.”

Temple Emanuel has a congregation of about 35 families and a rabbi from Denver travels to Pueblo twice a month to lead services.

When he announced the arrest, U.S. Attorney Jason Dunn said that in planning his attack, Holzer, “indicated that he wanted to do something that would let Jewish people in the Pueblo community know that they are not welcome and that, according to him, they should leave or they will die.”

Atlas-Acuña said that attitude doesn’t reflect how the Pueblo community really feels about the synagogue.

“He is not a Puebloan. Puebloans have embraced this temple.”

Pueblo Police Department officials plan to come to the synagogue on Friday night to address the congregation.

“We get visits all the time from churches in the community who want to come and join us for services and learn about Judaism because they understand that Judaism is their roots,” Atlas-Acuña added.

As he reflected on the day’s events, the message Atlas-Acuña decided to send is about the congregation’s resilience. “We’re going to be here. We’ve been here for 119 years,” he said. 

“But we’re going to do what we need to do to protect ourselves.”