NJ responds to alarm over security
Three Mercer County synagogues receive $50,000 in state grant to improve building safety.
Security has long been on the minds of staff and members at Adath Israel Congregation in Lawrenceville, and when the congregation heard in early spring about the availability of state monies for security improvements, they “jumped” at the opportunity, according to Abe Abramovich, chair of the building and grounds committee.
“We’ve never had any incidents, but the climate has changed; so I think being preemptive and proactive is better than waiting till something bad happens and having to react to that and feeling badly that you didn’t do anything beforehand,” he said.
Adath Israel and two other synagogues — the Jewish Center in Princeton and Congregation Beth Chaim in Princeton Junction — were awarded $50,000 from a state grant for security improvements. The Security Enhancements Countering Unmitigated Risk in New Jersey (SECUR-NJ) grant program provides a total of $1 million for eligible nonprofit organizations in nine New Jersey counties that have been determined by the state’s director of homeland security to be at high risk of terrorist attack and are in jurisdictions not covered by the Federal Homeland Security Grant program.
Gov. Chris Christie announced the grants on March 21 after several bomb threat incidents at Jewish community centers (JCCs) around the state and throughout the country, including the Katz JCC in Cherry Hill, which was evacuated on Feb. 27.
In a statement, Christie said, “Unfortunately, as incidents in the past few weeks have shown, every area of New Jersey is vulnerable to threats and possible attacks, making these additional resources crucial in our efforts to enhance security in certain parts of the state that had not previously received federal security grant funding.”
The NJ State Association of Jewish Federations, which interacts with New Jersey’s legislators, executive personnel, and state agencies on behalf of the Jewish federations and beneficiary agencies throughout the state, lobbied the last three years for the SECUR-NJ grants. The money was awarded to 24 organizations out of about 55 applicants in the state. All grants have a two-year implementation window.
The Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks (PMB), which is not a member of the State Association, coordinated several security seminars led by Secure Community Network (SCN), the national homeland security initiative of The Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Seminars were open to individual synagogues and agencies.
“Our Federation has been on the frontline of the security issue for our community…not just with the synagogues, but also the local agencies,” wrote Mark Merkovitz, executive director of the Jewish Federation of PMB, in an email to NJJN.
Applicants for the grant had to complete a questionnaire assessing the vulnerability of their buildings, including issues like door locks, lighting, security cameras, and secure entranceways. All three Mercer County synagogues that received grants have people of all ages coming in and out of their buildings for social, educational, and other communal activities.
At the Jewish Center, director of administration Debbie Orel and former president Naomi Perlman wrote the grant request. Orel told NJJN, “Based upon a police department assessment, the Jewish Center applied for a grant that would provide for additional outside lighting and additional security cameras (closed-circuit television cameras).”
Congregation Beth Chaim staff— executive director Alex Grumbacher, and director of lifelong education Anne Berman-Waldorf—wrote their grant application in consultation with the local police department. Their plans include a combination of securing its exterior, installing better surveillance systems, instituting a faster way to get in touch with law enforcement, and improving internal procedures for evacuating people or sheltering them in place, including when large numbers are in the building, according to Grumbacher.
Starting in 2014, Adath Israel worked with energy company PSE&G to upgrade to high-efficiency lighting in the parking lot so “the place is all lit up,” Abramovich said. The synagogue also enlisted help from the Lawrence Township Police, which supplied a liaison to help with a site survey and to make recommendations.
Adath Israel implemented one of their new security measures this High Holy Day season. Uniformed and plainclothes police officers guarded the building, according to Abramovich. Other plans include surveillance equipment for monitoring external and internal activities on the site, enacting measures to protect and alarm Torahs and other Jewish artifacts, and controlling access to the building.
“Access control is a tricky topic. Adath has always prided itself on being open and accessible; it can be a double-edged sword,” said Abramovich, who added that Adath Israel will be seeking recommendations from other institutions that have dealt with access-control issues. “We want to be safe and secure but we don’t want to lose that welcoming atmosphere that has always been our signature.”