On eve of 9/11 anniversary, talk of guns in synagogue as terror threat seen to be growing.
Ten years after the 9/11 attacks, the Jewish community is not any safer but is better prepared to deal with terrorist attacks, according to several Jewish leaders and law enforcement experts.
“Sept. 11 was a wake-up call for the country,” said David Pollock, associate executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. “Many Jewish organizations awoke and took concrete steps to protect themselves. Others merely rolled over and went back to sleep. Fortunately, the number of slumberers is in the minority and their numbers are declining.”
The increasing interest in synagogue security was evident in a JCRC web-based seminar held Tuesday evening with several security experts as guests. About 100 synagogue representatives signed in to view the presentation and ask questions, which at one point included a discussion of what to do if an armed terrorist got into the synagogue during a High Holy Day service.
One of those watching asked if congregants should carry their own guns to shul. Pollock said the New York Police Department studied the issue and recommends that in the event of an armed intruder, congregants “evacuate if you can get out of the building, shelter themselves in a room, lock the door and put stuff in front of it. …
“If that is not possible, NYPD recommends that you take group action with improvised weapons,” he continued as someone watching noted that hurled prayer books would be good weapons. “But unless you have someone in the congregation who is a trained person [with a gun], having people in the congregation with guns could endanger others. ...”
Another panelist, retired New York City homicide detective Mordecai Dzikansky, said that should the congregation’s leadership decide to allow one congregant to carry a gun, “the rest of the congregation should not know because if something happens, they will all be pointing at him [to do something]. So keep it discreet. If not, the level of surprise will be gone.”
Paul DeMatteis, director of the Terrorism Vulnerability Assessment Program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, then pointed out that “having one armed person [in the congregation] does not mean that you not take other precautions” to guard against the attack.
He stressed that should a congregant be selected to carry a gun, he should be a “former law enforcement officer who will have a much higher level of training and be more effective in the use of a weapon than someone who owns a jewelry store and has a weapon. You are dealing with a lot of people in a small area. If the person is properly trained, is alert and responds quickly, he could save a lot of lives. But if not executed properly, he could hurt a lot of people.”
Unsaid but undoubtedly on the minds of many was the bloodbath carried out in July by a lone Norwegian gunman who opened fire at a youth camp, killing 85 defenseless people, some as young as 16.
One of those watching the seminar was Rabbi Mordechai Roizman, the organization’s director of Synagogue Services for the National Council of Young Israel, who said he was struck by the gun discussion.
“That issue has come up in previous years and they have generally glossed over or shied away from it,” he said. “This was the first time it was addressed head on. That is indicative of how much more seriously people are taking security. … Synagogues have become more security conscious and are leveraging resources to address their vulnerabilities.”
Rabbi Roizman noted also that 11 Young Israel congregations were just awarded Non-Profit Homeland Security Grants totaling about $800,000 to enhance their synagogue’s security by installing reinforced doors and taking other “target-hardening” measures.
Since 2005, the Jewish community has received about $83 million of the $118 million in security grants distributed, according to Paul Goldberg, senior legislative affairs director for the Jewish Federations of North America.
During the seminar, it was suggested that synagogues be thoroughly inspected and that a lockdown start 48 hours before the High Holy Days. And some synagogues might want to park cars they know around the building or at the entrance to provide added protection.
Pollock said evacuation routes should be placed on every seat or where congregants pick up prayer books so that they know where to go in the event of an emergency. In addition, he said, ushers should know the evacuation routes for their sections, and Sabbath and weekday prayer books should not be stored on steps used for an evacuation.
DeMatteis said synagogues that hire additional security officers should not use them to assist in questioning non-member walk-ins.
“Have your own volunteers watch the crowd and identify where [newcomers] are from,” he said, adding that volunteers should do this screening far from the building.
“Do it as close to the street as possible so that you are away from the crowd,” DeMatteis said. “Don’t do it in the entrance. … I don’t think a bad guy will be able to fool you.”
Threats against the Jewish community are more real now than ever before because “there has been an explosion of extremism globally that targets Jews and Jewish communities,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “And Israel today is threatened in ways it has not been threatened before as a country — from Iran to groups like Hamas and Hezbollah; its neighborhood has changed from bad to worse. And the fact that the majority of Jews live today in Israel means that a majority of the Jewish people is less secure.”
He pointed out that globally in the last 10 years there has been a growth of radical Muslim extremism in Western and Eastern Europe and in Latin America that targets Jews.
“In the totality, we are no safer than we were 10 years ago,” Foxman said, just one day after seven members of the 9/11 commission said the failure to address nine of its 41 recommendations over the last seven years has left the country vulnerable to future attacks.
The commission cited such things as a failure to decide which agency is to take control of the entire intelligence community, to a failure to have one emergency radio frequency for all first responders nationwide.
Nevertheless, Foxman said the Jewish community today is “better protected because of a greater awareness and vigilance. Many West European countries have taken steps to monitor and protect the Jewish community, and the United States has an ambassador who monitors and combats anti-Semitism and who mandates that American ambassadors around the world do the same.”
Yehudit Barsky, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Division on Middle East and International Terrorism, added that the American Jewish community itself is “more aware of the risks to our community and is taking precautions; we’re not standing still.”
The JCRC of New York and the Secure Communications Network, established in 2004 by Jewish federations in the U.S. to advise the Jewish community about communal safety, security and preparedness, have both developed resource guides to help Jewish institutions provide better security.
Until last October, when bombs mailed to two Chicago-area synagogues from Yemen were intercepted in Dubai and England, Barsky said there had not been a global terrorist organization targeting the Jewish community since the Palestine Liberation Organization sent letter bombs to Jewish institutions in the U.S. some 30 years ago.
Although the bombs, said to have the hallmarks of al Qaeda or its affiliate al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula, did not reach their intended targets, “it demonstrates an effort by al Qaeda to specifically target Jews and the Jewish community,” she said.
To alert the Jewish community about that threat, the Department of Homeland Security turned to the Secure Communication Network, according to Robert Goldenberg, its national director. He said SCN then contacted the Jewish federation system and more than 100 Jewish organizations in Chicago to tell them of the plot and what to look for in case there were other package bombs still en route.
“There is no other community in the United States that is better prepared and has done more in partnering with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security than the American Jewish community,” he said. “It has taken remarkable steps to better secure itself. It has acted not in panic or fear, but it has empowered itself to better understand its vulnerabilities. It is therefore somewhat safer because of this.”
Despite precautions however, there have been breaches of security. The most notable occurred in 2006 when a man armed with two guns and a knife forced his way into the Seattle Jewish Federation offices. He held one of the guns to the back of a teenage visitor and ordered her to get buzzed in past the security door. Then he opened fire randomly, shooting six women, one fatally. He was reportedly heard to say, “I’m a Muslim; I’m angry at Israel.” After a brief standoff, he surrendered to police.
Dzikansky, the retired city detective, now lives in Israel and serves as Israel’s liaison with the New York Police Department. He said he was impressed that over the last 10 years the Jewish community has not only been proactive in taking security seriously but has “kept up the energy, which is so hard.”
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