Jewish schools and synagogues in New Jersey are on high alert after it was learned that there were several connections between the Garden State and the Sept. 17 bombings in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood in which 29 people were injured. For Jewish organizations, the incident served as a chilling reminder of the need to institute advanced security measures.
Josh Weiss, president of Congregation Anshe Chesed in Linden, the city in which suspect Ahmad Khan Rahami was captured on Monday after a shootout with the police, said that within the last eight months the Orthodox synagogue has participated in Community Security Service, a nonprofit organization founded in 2007 that partners Jewish organizations with the police and government authorities in training volunteers in professional security techniques. A police officer is stationed outside Anshe Chesed each Shabbat as well. That these events occurred so close to home should reinforce their claims that such measures are necessary, Weiss said.
“There are three types of people [at the synagogue]: those who think what we are doing is useless; those who are overly thankful; and the people in the middle who think it’s nice, but do we really need it?” said Weiss. “This is a terrible thing that happened, but it is proof that we absolutely need to be extra vigilant to protect ourselves.”
Even before the bombing in Chelsea — another explosive device was found and defused just four blocks away later that night — New Jersey was a part of the story. Early Saturday 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 are 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.
“Thank God they caught the guy, but we remain vigilant, and our security measures remain in place,” she said.
Much has been made about 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 the mayor 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.”
Anshe Chesed president Weiss, who owns his own startup tech company in Linden, echoed the words of the consul general: “While we have to be careful to protect ourselves and make decisions about what we need to do, if we change our behavior in response to terror in a way that impedes our behavior, they’ve won.”