The most important advice Robert Wilson, chief security officer at the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, offered local Jewish community institutions in the wake of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh is not to act rashly.
“There’s a little bit of hysteria right now, but the threat’s been out there a long time,” he told NJJN in a phone interview. “The threat’s hit home. People are looking at their synagogues, their houses of worship, and everyone is concerned about how to respond.”
“We’re reeling, and the tragedy is real. But we need to do whatever we do in a measured and calculated way, not rushing to put something in place.”
His focus is on thoughtful, sustainable action. “We should not hire guards for three weeks until we run out of money; that’s not an appropriate thing to do,” Wilson said, “even though people want to do something. The answer is not to call the police department and put a police officer outside” without proper long-term planning, without addressing questions like “For how long? Is that sustainable financially?”
Instead, Wilson urges area synagogues and other institutions to work together with him to develop a security plan that fits the culture of each individual organization.
He pointed out that since he arrived at federation — his office is at its headquarters on the Aidekman Jewish Community Campus in Whippany — early in 2017, about 90 percent of the area’s Jewish institutions have been in touch with him. And between the shooting Saturday in Pittsburgh and late Monday evening, about 20 percent had been in contact again to reevaluate their level of security.
The process for these evaluations can be lengthy, he acknowledged, first involving an assessment of weaknesses, followed by a discussion of potential improvements. These may include anything from additional lighting, cameras, locked doors, and alarms to volunteer greeters and security guards. Finally, there’s a determination of what measures to take that will work for the particular institution. For a plan at a synagogue to have success, Wilson said, the rabbi, leaders, and congregants should come to an agreement.
In the meantime, he pointed out that the JCC MetroWest in West Orange and JCC of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains have significant security measures in place, and many synagogues — though not the majority — have already opted to have a security officer on the premises every Shabbat. The big challenge for synagogues is balancing a welcoming environment with safety.
Wilson also noted that along with representatives of the federation, he’s been meeting with people and having conference calls with security experts at the federal, state, and local levels.
Federation is also working with the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations to secure more funding through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for safety measures at Jewish institutions. This year, 15 local institutions received up to $10,000 in grants from the state’s Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness to increase security, including, in some cases, to engage security personnel. Wilson said it was the first time these funds paid for such hires.
He issued an invitation to any Jewish institution in the region to get in touch with him. “If you’re comfortable with what you’re doing, fine. But we’re still here to have a conversation if you want to. You can pick my brain to make yourself more aware of potential vulnerabilities and potential improvements. I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”
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