Unsettled world and national conditions have made security a key concern at area synagogues and local Jewish organizations as the High Holidays approach.
“It’s an unprecedented year,” said Paul Goldenberg, national director of Secure Community Network (SCN), a nonprofit that works on security issues with the Jewish Federations of North America and its members throughout the world, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. “We’re busier than we’ve ever been on record, between the exposure of Jewish institutions through JCC bomb threats and the fact that neo-Nazi ideologies seem to have grown in number and are very focused on Jewish institutions and the Jewish people.
“With the upcoming holiday, I want people to enjoy them and be in synagogue and attend services as in any other year. However, they need to be extraordinarily vigilant.”
For the most part, Goldenberg said, synagogues and other Jewish institutions have heeded his warning. They understand what’s at stake.
“The fact of the matter is we are and forever will be targets and need to be smart about it,” said Rabbi Moshe Brennan of the Chabad of Penn Wynne. “During the holidays we need to do more. Safety is definitely a priority and people need to know they’re going to be safe.”
“We haven’t changed it drastically, but we’re stepping it up a bit,” added Rabbi Eliezer Hirsch of Mekor Habracha in Center City. “We’re always very concerned about it, but more vigilant than normal this year.”
However, at least one suburban synagogue has decided against implementing additional security measures, which worries Goldenberg.
“That is a mistake,” said Goldenberg, who co-founded SCN in 2004 after serving in the New Jersey Attorney General’s office, where he was responsible for handling hate crimes and domestic terrorism. “Going synagogue to synagogue is where the challenges lie.
“Some synagogue administrators locally are doing an extraordinary job in their facilities. But some don’t yet quite understand the impact of not having a plan to focus on these issues. The good news is the Jewish community has become much more cognizant that security needs to be part of their DNA.”
While SCN has convinced a number of Jewish federations to hire security experts to run local operations, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has sent out advisories and has run security training programs for any Jewish institution that asks.
“The High Holidays bring a lot more visitors and, therefore, it’s a time to be more attentive to the need for security,” said Nancy Baron-Baer, ADL regional director for Eastern Pennsylvania, Southern New Jersey and Delaware. “Our security training can cover a broad range — from relationships with emergency personnel, to learning how to respond to threats such as bombs and suspicious packages, to special considerations for schools and camps.
“ADL has believed for decades that security is an important consideration for schools and synagogues, and we must be aware of our surroundings. But it’s fair to say we’ve had a better response in the past 18 months. And no matter where we’ve done training, we’ve found law enforcement to be engaged, interested and willing to help any religious institution.”
ADL offers a security manual online detailing how synagogues and communal institutions can best protect themselves. It addresses such areas as High Holiday ticketing, but stops short of supporting the notion of congregants arming themselves.
Goldenberg agrees with that. At the same time, he said it’s critical Jewish institutions know how to protect their own turf and not presume others will do it for them.
“They have to come to realize if police are overwhelmed with other matters, it’s incumbent upon every Jewish institution to have an emergency arrangement in place they can activate,” he said. “But we don’t want to see TSA-style apparatus. We don’t want to see fences around the building. But they need to have the resources and ability to keep their members alive.”
Even while recognizing the potential dangers, some don’t want to scare congregants by increasing security.
“Mikveh Israel is well known in the city,” Rabbi Albert Gabbai said, “but we’re doing things the same way we’ve always done here. We always have security here, but this year will not be different than any other time.”
The bottom line is for those observing the High Holidays to feel secure, but not to the point of taking it for granted, Goldenberg said.
“I come from two communities — the Jewish community and law enforcement, and I’ve seen attacks on both of them, which pains me,” he said. “However, I’ve traveled across Europe with Jewish communities, and nowhere in the world do they have the type of relationship like we have with [the Department of] Homeland Security and the FBI dedicated to provide additional security.
“The message we send is we very much remain open for business. We want the general public to know that. The only difference is we’re taking security of our buildings and institutions much more seriously because we’ve been compelled to.”
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