First there was an upswing in expressions of racial, religious, anti-immigrant, and homophobic hatred after the presidential election.
Then there were the wildfires in Israel that started on Nov. 24 — many believed to have been set by terrorists — which damaged or destroyed some 2,000 homes, injuring 200 people and forcing 60,000 to be evacuated.
Four days later, a Somali-born student at Ohio State University, who said he was inspired by ISIS, went on a stabbing rampage at his campus, wounding 11 before he was shot dead by a university police officer.
Whether or not there is any theological connection, the confluence of these incidents is inspiring some Jewish institutions in New Jersey to examine and possibly upgrade their security systems.
“Because of the fires in Israel and the stabbings at Ohio State, does this make it a key time for upgrading security?” asked Keith Krivitzky, CEO of the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey. “No,” he answered. “A key time has been the past year plus.”
Krivitzky said his federation “has put together a game plan” to strengthen the security and preparedness in the Jewish institutions of Middlesex and Monmouth counties.
And yet, he told NJJN, “I am sure that across the board we don’t plan or train or drill enough.” Krivitzky plans to conduct more training programs, including how to respond to armed attackers and specialized training for synagogue ushers during the High Holy Days.
But, he lamented, for many local institutions and synagogues, “this hasn’t been a priority and it needs to be. Synagogues face a particular challenge because they want to be warm and welcoming for people to come in, but they need to pay more attention to boundaries and security.”
“Over the past six months we have received more requests from Jewish schools and educators than we have in our 10-year history,” said Paul Goldenberg, director of Secure Community Network, a national initiative of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Goldenberg, whose agency connects police, homeland security, and Jewish agencies in dealing with security issues, told NJJN he is especially concerned with what he called “any” uptick in anti-Semitic rhetoric and chatter on the Internet,” as well as anti-Semitic graffiti.
He said that increase has been coupled with verbal and sometimes physical harassment of synagogue-goers, some of it due to the rise of ISIS and right-wing ultranationalist political parties in Europe, others from the anti-Semitic and white supremacist “alt-right.”
“American-Jewish leaders are no longer putting security issues on the back burner,” said Goldenberg. “But the community cannot rely solely on law enforcement for securing themselves.
“The Jewish community needs to teach rabbis and teachers and administrators how to respond if there is an active shooter situation and how to spot and report a suspicious person,” said Goldenberg. “Many synagogues have never had simple fire drills and have no evacuation plans, but we are trying to change that.”
An e-mail survey of some 25 New Jersey synagogues disclosed that few conduct regular fire drills or evacuation scenarios, and many asked NJJN not to disclose their identities.
“Security has not been part of rabbis’ job descriptions, but this has become a topic that our leaders need to become more engaged with,” Goldenberg said.
And yet, he cautioned against “turning our institutions into armed camps. There has to be a balance between developing a culture of security and becoming a place where people attending synagogue on a Saturday have to go through a [Transportation Security Administration] turnstile the way they do at an airport. The day that we reconsider going to synagogue or playing racquet ball at the JCC or attending a social event at the federation is the day that those who want to cause us harm have succeeded,” Goldenberg said.