Jewish schools and synagogues in New Jersey were on high alert after it was learned that there were several connections between the Garden State and the Sept. 17 bombing in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood that left 29 people injured. For Jewish organizations, the incident served as a chilling reminder of the need to institute advanced security measures.
With the coming of the High Holy Days — Rosh Hashana began the evening of Oct. 2 — the Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ held a two-part training session Sept. 19 for synagogue ushers and greeters.
Federation CEO Keith Krivitzky said the sessions were organized by its security task force and were the latest in a series of 16 such workshops through which the agency has worked to enhance security awareness and preparedness in the community’s institutions.
Leading up to the seminars, a webinar on High Holy Day procedures was held Sept. 15, led by a retired FBI agent now serving on the federation task force.
During the Sept. 19 program, Krivitzky said, 50 attendees representing 30 Jewish institutions in Middlesex and Monmouth counties participated in a roundtable discussion with national and international security experts.
The High Holy Days, said Krivitzky, “are when our synagogues draw the biggest crowds, and ushers and greeters welcome many people they barely know. They are the people on the front lines, the first to notice when something isn’t right, and are best able to respond. That’s why we did this kind of training, which is part of our ongoing the broader preparedness and training initiatives.”
Following the discussion, 75 participants heard a representative of U.S. Security Care, Inc., speak on drawing up an emergency action plan. Also on hand were local law enforcement representatives and security agencies, including the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s and Sheriff’s offices.
Monmouth County Sheriff Shaun Golden released a statement after the meeting praising the cooperation between the federation and his office, adding, “Unfortunately, the threat of violence continues to affect many religious organizations, and residents must remain highly vigilant and prepared.”
Krivitzky said other federation security initiatives include having director of community programming Amy Keller, the staff liaison to the task force, continually meet with representatives of federations across the state to learn effective strategies.
He said those efforts have paid off in putting the Heart of NJ federation “significantly ahead of the curve,” and resulted in its receiving more than $1 million in grants from federal Homeland Security this year for area schools, institutions, and synagogues, “more than any other federation in the state and five times more than we’ve received any other year,” said Krivitzky.
The initiatives gained in urgency in the aftermath of the terrorist bombings in Seaside Park and Manhattan and an attempted bombing in Elizabeth, allegedly by Ahmad Khan Rahami, who was shot and captured in a shootout with Linden police two days later. Rahami graduated from Edison High School and attended Middlesex County College in Edison.
After the Chelsea bombing, another explosive device was found and defused just four blocks away. Early that morning, one of three pipe bombs hidden in a Seaside Heights trash can detonated near the route of the Semper Five Marine Corps Charity 5K race; a delayed start prevented any injuries. Though New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said that evening that he did not believe the two bombings were related, the FBI stated later that Rahami was, in fact, a suspect in both incidents. The next evening a backpack containing five explosives was found near the train station in Elizabeth, the city in which Rahami, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Afghanistan, lived.
On Monday morning, hours before Rahami was apprehended, Steve Karp, executive director of the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth, released a statement in which he said that although all schools in the city were open, the school was in close communication with local law enforcement and there would be a bolstered police presence in the area, including patrols around both its campuses.
Later, Adina Abramov, JEC’s chief marketing officer and director of admissions and recruitment, said that the school had doubled its private security at both campuses and had instituted a “lock-out,” in which only students and adults with IDs would be allowed into buildings; in addition, lunch would be provided to students since they were prohibited from leaving school for lunch. At the time she spoke to NJJN, Abramov said the protocols were still active, even though Rahami had been taken into custody by then.
Much has been made about New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s assertion on Saturday night that the Chelsea bombing was “an intentional act,” even as he maintained that there was no evidence of a “link to terrorism.” Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said it was terrorism only minutes after hearing of the bombing; Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was more measured in her response, but acknowledged that it was an “apparent” terrorist attack. Both New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and NJ Gov. Chris Christie called it an “act of terrorism” the following morning, but de Blasio waited until Monday to do the same.
In an interview with NJJN, Dani Dayan, the recently installed consul general of Israel in New York, said that, being from a country that has significant experience with terrorism, he sympathizes with the mayor and said he has “no criticism whatsoever” for his hesitancy.
“In Israel we are much more impulsive than Americans, and in some sense I appreciate Mayor de Blasio and Gov. Cuomo’s restraint,” he said. “When the facts are becoming public and more is clear and the investigation is conducted and arrests are being made, then we can talk more. Although it is an Israeli tradition, I don’t think it’s necessarily a good one to immediately assume assumptions.”
At the same time, Dayan said that “terror is terror is terror, and any attempt to differentiate between them — and even more so when we see there are similar characteristics with the perpetrators in Paris and New York and in Israel — is both artificial and counterproductive.”
Dayan stressed that residents of New York and New Jersey should take a lesson from Israelis, who work hard to deny terrorists the satisfaction of seeing citizens alter their lifestyles because of attacks. He referenced the June attack on the Max Brenner cafe in Tel Aviv, in which a gunman murdered four people; the next day the cafe was open for business.
“Evidence of the terrorist attack was already cleaned up, in a classic example of stubborn Israeli insistence to return to normal after deadly tragedy,” according to an article in The Jerusalem Post.
“I hope that residents of New York and New Jersey don’t change their routines and lifestyles because of the threat of terrorism,” Dayan said. “That would be of the utmost success for terrorists.”