Even before Monday’s bomb threats to the JCC on the Hudson and the JCC of Mid-Westchester forced evacuations and raised the levels of anxiety, security had been a serious concern for the county’s Jewish institutions.
“Security has become a No. 1 priority for the Westchester Jewish Council during the last five years,” said Elliot Forchheimer, WJC’s executive director. “The county’s Jewish institutions have been security savvy for years. They’re continuing to upgrade.”
Elizabeth Lampert, co-chair of the Westchester Jewish Council’s security committee, added: “In 2011, our security round table would have 20 people. There’s been an increase in interest in the last five years. Now we have 40-50 people. It’s definitely on everybody’s radar.”
Until this past week, however, the measures had been seen as largely precautionary. But in the wake of the most recent threats against JCCs and day schools around the country, as well as the cemetery desecrations in St. Louis and Philadelphia, vulnerabilities were heightened. Few of those contacted for this story wanted to divulge specifics of their security programs and protocols, or even have photos of their buildings published. Several declined to be interviewed.
Still, there are some clear trends about the direction the county’s institutions are taking.
One strategy has been closer working relationships with area law enforcement agencies. “We have a true partnership with the local police department,” said Jane Sable-Friedman, executive director of Larchmont Temple. “It’s important to make sure your relationship with the local police department is a strong one. We’re communicating more frequently with them.”
Similarly, said Jessica Lorden, executive director of Congregation Kol Ami, “We meet regularly with the White Plains police department, who provide excellent support and proper training for our staff.”
The WJC also offers three trainings a year to its members, including one with local law enforcement before the High Holidays. Through WJC, there’s also coordination among the local police departments, Homeland Security, the FBI and the Westchester County police, as well as the county district attorney’s office, to deal with bias crimes.
In mid-February, Noam Bramson, the mayor of New Rochelle, met with local Jewish leaders and the city’s police commissioner to discuss anti-Semitism and how to take precautions and respond to threats or actions.
Some synagogues are enhancing or constructing physical barriers and focusing on high-tech approaches, like sophisticated camera systems. Several have provided more professional training for guards and security officers. To pay for the enhanced and increase security measures, some congregations have added a security fee to dues.
“Creating awareness is key,” said Lampert. “As with anything else, high-tech equipment is only valuable if you use it, and know how to use it. Training is important.”
Another important aspect of security is communicating with members regularly about changes in procedure or security upgrades. Synagogues have emergency committees of first responders, who will accept phone calls, texts and emails if there’s a situation that warrants it.
Like other executive directors, Lorden said, “We are communicating with members much more regularly, and being proactive, on this topic. We are getting inquiries especially from the nursery school parents, because the kids are here the most.”
Karen Kolodny, executive director of the JCC of Mid Westchester, had sent a letter to her members the week prior to receiving the Feb. 27 bomb threat, informing them of some new procedures that would be implemented.
“We always have to be looking at security,” she said. “It’s an evolving process.”
One of the challenges Jewish institutions confront is balancing the need to remain a welcoming spiritual home with the need to provide security for those in their buildings.
At New Rochelle’s Beth El Synagogue Center, executive director Erica Leventhal said, “There’s a constant review of our security. Nothing is more important. We are a spiritual house of worship with schools and camps, so we weigh out the benefits and the costs that come with hardening building and security measures. It’s protecting in line with the spirit of our values. It’s regularly discussed by our board of trustees. It’s not a black and white issue.”
There’s no denying, however, that this is an issue that won’t be going away.
“It’s a sad statement of our culture,” said Kolodny. “People understand. Younger people understand this is our society now.”
Still, Forchheimer cautioned, “there’s not a swell of anti-Semitism here.” In the aftermath of Monday’s threats to the JCCs, national, state and local political officials issued strong statements denouncing these acts and asserting zero tolerance for hatred and bigotry.
“The Westchester Jewish Council condemns these heinous acts of anti-Semitism and hate, which impact all of Westchester and especially our Jewish community,” Paul Warhit, the WJC’s president, said in a statement Monday. “We commend our member organizations for their swift response using established safety protocols to ensure the safety of all patrons. We take these threats seriously, and are grateful to our Westchester elected officials and law enforcement personnel for their swift attention to this matter. By working together, we will apprehend those responsible for spreading hatred across our country and county.”
Warhit continued, “We would also like to thank our fellow Westchester residents from all ethnic and religious backgrounds who have stepped up to show their support in fighting anti-Semitism, bias crime, terror and hatred. We look forward to continuing to stand side by side with all our neighbors in making Westchester a free and inclusive county.”