Federation hires first chief security officer
Former cop Robert Wilson looks to reduce community vulnerability
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
Even as the NJ Jewish community has begrudgingly come to accept the recent wave of bomb threats as commonplace — another was called in to Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston on Tuesday (see story on page 8) — the local leadership is taking steps to ensure the safety of its members.
Robert Wilson is the first chief security officer for the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. Since he started in his post on Feb. 6, he is the point person for security issues across the community.
Hiring him was part of a larger security plan the federation board adopted last fall that also includes providing security training for local institutions and establishing a community-wide alert system. The upgrades are being paid for through emergency reserve funds.
“We recognized that many of the institutions in our community were feeling vulnerable and realized that we as federation were uniquely positioned to address their common concerns on a large scale,” said the organization’s president, Leslie Dannin Rosenthal, in a prepared statement.
The local federation, based on the Aidekman campus in Whippany, is one of about 18 around the country that have created such a position.
Wilson said he believes that’s just the beginning. “I wouldn’t be shocked if over the next five years we see the numbers double,” he told NJJN during a March 8 interview.
Sitting in his office on the campus with a display of all his framed police badges on the wall behind him (he served the Teaneck Police Department as police officer, lieutenant, detective, sergeant, and captain, before becoming chief of police), he addressed questions about his job, his strategies, the challenges facing him and the community, his best advice, and his experience.
Wilson’s vision boils down to partnership. “It’s all about forging relationships and working collaboratively to make the community safer as a whole,” he said.
His first order of business? Making contact with every agency and institution in the 1,500-plus square mile area in five counties (Essex, Morris, Sussex, and Union counties and parts of Somerset County). “That’s kind of large,” he said with a chuckle. “But it’s not insurmountable.” The federation catchment area includes more than 20 partner agencies, four day schools, and more than 100 synagogues. Wilson’s security oversight also includes all local Jewish establishments such as Judaica stores, cemeteries, kosher restaurants, and agency offices.
But Wilson is mission-focused. “The only way to get a sense of what is occurring is to be out there,” he said. It’s a process that he knows will take time. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” he said.
So far, he’s visited 20 locations and seen a range of practices “from full-blown security to smaller synagogues with nothing in place,” he said. Larger agencies and day schools, particularly Gottesman RTW Academy in Randolph and Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, he said, have the most sophisticated security systems. But even in places that have nothing, he said, “there’s a desire for something. I can provide policies to put into place and address their concerns.”
One of the first things he’s doing is confirming that each synagogue has a point person in local law enforcement. That way, Wilson said, “the first time they come out is not the day you are having an incident.”
At a minimum, he advised, “Every Jewish institution should ensure that they have policies in place and that they practice how to evacuate, how to respond to threats, and how best to secure the facility.”
Overall, he said, Jewish organizations “are probably more secure than other houses of worship. I can say for a fact that you don’t see Catholic churches with camera systems or shatter-resistant glass and security forces like what you see at a synagogue on Shabbat.”
Wilson, 52, grew up in Teaneck and now lives in Haworth with his wife and three children. He started his career with the Teaneck Police Department, where, as chief of police, he led a team of 100 officers. From there he went on to serve as director of public safety at the College of Staten Island.
He’s also a runner currently training for his 11th marathon this June and believes challenging himself is “healthy professionally and personally.” Wilson said he is working closely with the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, as well as other experts, to keep apprised of any threats. He also relies on his extensive experience in law enforcement and community policing — and he uses plenty of common sense. “There’s a greater likelihood of evacuation for a natural gas leak or a fire than for someone coming in and perpetrating violence,” he said. “I’m here to ensure an ‘all hazards’ approach.” Such an approach involves assessing the risk of various situations to understand where a community is vulnerable, Wilson said, and setting basic procedures that will be needed in any emergency, such as evacuating a building and finding shelter.
As he sees his role, Wilson said, he is the liaison with local public law enforcement agencies as well as private security companies that have been hired by local Jewish agencies, synagogues, or businesses. He is also a consultant for all the Greater MetroWest institutions to help them lay a foundation for securing their facilities and a general security resource. “I may not have the answers but I can point you in the right direction to get the help you need,” he said. “It’s important to have someone [in this role] at federation.”
Still, each individual location is responsible for its own security.
Wilson understands the anxiety members of the Jewish community are facing, given the recent wave of bomb threats against JCCs, including local centers, and other acts of anti-Semitism.
In fact, he’s got his own personal experience on that score. He described what it was like for him as a parent when his daughter was a student at the University of Pittsburgh in 2012. That year, he recalled, the campus had 160 bomb threats in two-and-a-half months. I lived 600 miles away. She’d call at 2 a.m. and say she was being evacuated from the tower. It went on and on.
“It was insane,” he said. “It wasn’t my house of worship or my JCC. But it was personal.”
In addition to getting to know the local players, Wilson is in contact with his counterparts at other federations around the country, discussing best practices through regular conference calls and emails. He said he is looking forward to attending a meeting of all of the federation security advisers in May.
Wilson, in true police chief fashion, takes pride in making a difference in people’s lives. He told NJJN, “If someone says the time spent [with you] and the information you’ve given me provides comfort and solace and security, and that I feel confident we have in place the pieces to keep ourselves safe — if someone says that, it’s all I need.”