Additional police patrols and federal grants for security upgrades are helping Philadelphia’s Jewish community increase vigilance.
It’s not a rare occurrence these days to witness police cruisers rolling slowly past — or being stationed at — Jewish institutions across the area, from synagogues to day schools.
These visits aren’t a coincidence, according to local police. They come in the wake of the Kansas City shootings, during which three non-Jewish bystanders were murdered by alleged killer Frazier Glenn Miller outside of two Jewish institutions. Early indications point to anti-Semitism as the driving force behind the 72-year-old’s attack, and Miller’s history as a white supremacist has been well-documented.
Beyond help from the police, lack of funding presents one of the biggest hurdles for Jewish institutions attempting to provide adequate security, says Jared Ben-Caro, head of Magnum-8 Security Services, a company that protects eight synagogues and Jewish organizations in the Philadelphia area.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has attempted to address this problem with grants for “physical security enhancements to nonprofit organizations that are at high risk of terrorist attacks due to their ideology, beliefs or mission.” Eligible nonprofits can receive up to $75,000 toward installing or upgrading surveillance, alarm and access control systems.
The Nonprofit Security Grant Program has allocated $151 million since it was established in 2005, including $13 million in this year’s federal budget, according to the Jewish Federations of North America, which lauded this year’s allocation in a recent news release. The Federation umbrella organization has been a major proponent of the grants, and much of the funding has gone to Jewish institutions.
Ben-Caro, who made aliyah to serve as a paratrooper in the Israel Defense Forces in 2007 before relocating to Philadelphia and founding Magnum-8, said he has noticed Jewish organizations amping up security over the last year, a trend he attributed in part to the federal grant program.
Still, he expressed concern that more needs to be done: “American Jews are in denial that a major threat could happen to them.”
For their part, area police say they have made an extra effort to step up their presence outside of Jewish institutions since the Kansas City attacks.
Officer Christine O’Brien, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia Police Department, confirmed that the force received specific instructions to conduct hourly checks on synagogues and Jewish organizations. She said she had no time frame for how long the extra patrols and presence would continue.
“It’s a good practice anyway,” she said, explaining that increased interaction with the community raises the ability of police to prevent and address incidents as they occur.
O’Brien promised that police will “absolutely be on hand” at upcoming major events, such as the Israel 66 community Israel Independence Day Festival. The event, which will be hosted by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia at Penn’s Landing on May 18, is expected to draw several thousand people.
One person who has taken notice of the increased police presence is Jill Cooper, executive director of Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne.
The police patrols are hard to miss since “we are off the beaten path,” she said. “If you don’t know we’re here, you don’t know we’re here.”
Cooper said staff at her synagogue invited police to help them conduct a rundown of the congregation’s security following the 2012 shootings in Newtown, Conn.
Security has been beefed up in Cheltenham, too.
“To be very honest, we’ve been on extra alert for the last few years,” said John Norris, chief of the Cheltenham police district. “Especially with Beth Sholom across the street — it’s a national institution,” he continued, referring to the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed synagogue on Old York Road.
Norris, who said that police “have a good line of communication open” with the Jewish community, noted that he has sent officers to several Jewish institutions in the Cheltenham district, which has a particularly dense Jewish population, to provide a crash course on security and basic self-defense skills. A proactive attitude is the best deterrent and form of defense for the Jewish community, Norris said.
“If people see anything suspicious, they should call us right away,” he said. “A lot of people don’t do that because they’re afraid to bother us. But, frankly, that’s what we’re there for — to be bothered.”