With the High Holy Days coming just as the U.S. military is poised to launch a punitive attack on Syria, an emergency preparations guide for houses of worship was released this week at the White House. But officials stressed that it is being issued solely as a precaution.
“Every time tensions rise in the Middle East there is a heightened level of concern because there is a direct correlation between actions in the Middle East and the number of attacks or planned attacks on diaspora Jewish communities in North America as well as Europe,” said Paul Goldenberg, director of the Secure Community Network. “There is no imminent or specific threat at this juncture.”
SCN, the national homeland security initiative of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, distributed the guidelines to Jewish federations, synagogues and Jewish groups. The guidelines are posted on its website, www.scnus.org.
“The High Holy Day season always has the attention of our local, state and national security services,” Goldenberg observed. “However, with increased tensions in the Middle East, the Department of Homeland Security reached out to the Jewish community to provide material on preventive measures that can be taken for the safety of the community.”
He pointed out that just months after Israeli forces launched an eight-day military offensive against Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip last November, a neo-Nazi in Toledo, Ohio, was arrested for amassing weapons in his home that he was prohibited from owning because of a prior felony conviction. Authorities later found evidence that he was planning a terrorist attack at the Detroit Jewish federation building, Goldenberg said.
“In the U.S. we have homegrown violent extremists who may not be members of any organization but can be easily influenced by current events abroad, such as in the Middle East,” he said. “They may be inspired by al-Qaeda and others, and often act on their own.”
Particularly during the High Holy Days, the slogan, “If you see something, say something,” should be uppermost in the minds of ushers and congregants alike, Goldenberg noted.
In addition to the possibility of violent extremists, there is a concern about cyber attacks against the websites of Jewish organizations and synagogues.
“Jewish communities are not well versed in cyber security, and it is a very serious threat to national security and to the Jewish community,” he said. “We know that several groups that profess extremism – Islamic extremists and pro-Palestinian – have successfully attacked and/or probed websites operated by national and local Jewish communities and synagogues. Dozens have fallen victim to cyber attacks. … The people who do this tend to use controversial, political and social topics as motivation for their attacks that may result in defacement or a denial of service that keeps people from getting onto the site. Of even more concern is when they grab personal information such as emails and home addresses” from secure locations on the site and post them on social media.
“Synagogues need to determine what their security risks are and how current conditions in the Middle East impact them,” Goldenberg added. “Does the synagogue have a school, does it host high profile speakers? And all synagogues should share their building’s blueprints will local law enforcement so that should they have to respond to an emergency, they will know what the institution looks like.”
A number of synagogues in the New York area also have volunteers who partner with local law enforcement. Trained by a six-year-old organization called the Community Security Service that works in partnership with SCN, the volunteers are posted at synagogues during times of high risk and summon police when they spot a problem, according to its founder and co-president, David Dabscheck.
“We are a registered non-profit organization to help protect the life and way of life of the American Jewish community,” he said. “We train people who are attached or affiliated with a particular synagogue because they know their community better than anyone else. They have a cultural familiarity with those attending and are in a better position to detect what is out of place – someone’s behavior or an object. And we also have teams of volunteers who work at a variety of events for groups like Birthright and the Jewish National Fund.”
The CSS has trained some 3,000 men and women volunteers ages 18 to 80 in New York, New Jersey and Boston, and has received inquiries from other Jewish communities throughout the country, Dabscheck said.
Volunteers are Orthodox and secular, he noted, explaining, “This is an issue that touches the entire community. … This is not about patrolling or reacting to an emergency situation. The real value of a group like ours is to have someone who can act proactively to something before it escalates into an incident. The volunteers are eyes and ears on the ground that work with law enforcement.”
In a related development, Guy Caspi, an expert in the field of mass casualty training and preparedness at Magen David Adom, Israel’s national emergency medical service, conducted a seminar in White Plains last week for emergency responders in Westchester.
“Local emergency services are well trained for local emergencies, but dealing with terrorist attacks is different,” Caspi told The Jewish Week at the conclusion of the seminar. “Knowing that someone is trying to hurt you makes things more complicated. As a result, we at MDA try to get people as trained and ready as possible.”
Among the things he told the first responders is that in a terrorist attack “there is a basic assumption that there is a secondary device” that is timed to explode once they arrive.
Asked about the likelihood of such an attack, Caspi replied: “It’s not if but where and when. I am not a prophet, but there was an attack at the marathon in Boston in April, and Times Square had to be cleared” because of a car bomb.
“People who try to do this will try and try and try,” he said.
Among those attending the seminar was Westchester Police Sgt. Nathaniel Reckson, who said Caspi taught him some procedures he had never thought of before. Among them was how to quickly transfer the injured to local hospitals.
Caspi suggested that the police “plan out our route and make sure police keep it is clear of traffic to shorten transport time,” Reckson said.
“Our agency is like that of Nassau County in that our police department runs the medical service,” he said. “Typically we don’t have the traffic congestion you face in Israel, but traffic could be a problem in a mass casualty incident because of all the first responders clogging access points.”
Another suggestion Reckson said is certain to be adopted is to conduct a debriefing after every major incident.
“That almost should become protocol,” he said.