A day after the arson fire at a Hauppauge, L.I., synagogue last week, a congregant at the neighboring Dix Hills Jewish Center rushed up to the rabbi to ask about security for the High Holy Days.
"He said security was being beefed up and that there was nothing to be worried about," the congregant, Elaine Greenwald, said later of her conversation with Rabbi Howard Buechler. "I trust that when the rabbi tells me that, we’re doing all we can."
The synagogue’s president, Jeffrey Martin, this week sent a letter to the 600-family congregation informing the members that because of security concerns, a tent planned on the front lawn for the holidays had been canceled.
"The tent would have been a big structure with seating for 200 people backing up to [a main road], Vanderbilt Parkway," he said. "It would have been a sitting duck. We had to be prudent and cancel it.
"Would anything have happened? Probably not. And maybe the things we are doing are not necessary, but congregants have to be comfortable walking into our building."
Martin said the congregation was also increasing its traditional complement of armed guards (off-duty and retired police officers) for all High Holy Days services. And he outlined a series of other steps designed to keep cars a safe distance from the synagogue and to monitor all activity in and around the building.
Other synagogues throughout the metropolitan area also are increasing security in the wake of the arson fire at Temple Beth Chai, which was confined to the synagogue office, and the shooting spree at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in suburban Los Angeles that wounded three children and two women. Charged with the Aug. 10 shooting was Buford Furrow, 37, a self-described white separatist with links to hate groups in Washington state. He was charged as well with killing a Filipino-American postman while fleeing the scene.
After his arrest, he reportedly told authorities that he carried out the shooting at the Jewish center as a wake-up call for all Americans to kill Jews. A federal judge this week entered a not-guilty plea for Furrow on the murder charge.
Congregants are mindful also of the June 18 firebombings of three Sacramento, Calif., synagogues within a short time of each other. That was followed by a series of drive-by shootings that targeted Jews, Asians and blacks over the Fourth of July weekend in Illinois and Indiana. Two men were killed and several others wounded. A suspect, Benjamin Smith, 21, shot and killed himself after being surrounded by police in Chicago.
And this week in northern California there were two more anti-Semitic incidents: The home of a judge in San Jose was firebombed, and in San Francisco swastikas were scrawled on the walls of a Jewish day care center. Police said the graffiti, which included the words "Adolf Hitler was here," appeared to be a "copycat crime" prompted by the North Valley JCC shooting.
San Jose police arrested three teenagers who claimed ties to white supremacist groups and said the youths firebombed the judge’s home in the mistaken belief he is Jewish.
Next weekend, many for the first time since this series of hate crimes, millions of Jews nationwide will flock to synagogues, and many profess some wariness.
"We certainly are very concerned and we are taking every possible safety measure," said Rabbi Jacob Reiner of Congregation Ohab Zedek in Belle Harbor, Queens. "We are not paranoid, not fearful, but we are conscious of the situation. One never knows. We’re taking measures we haven’t taken in past years."
The Forest Hills Jewish Center, an 850-family congregation, plans to increase the number of security guards, add security cameras and keep all but patrolled doors locked, according to its president, Valerie Leibler.
"There’s a certain heightened concern since the events in Los Angeles, especially from parents of young children," she said. "We’ve already implemented several new security measures and we’re doing everything we can to be safe and to make sure people feel safe."
The administrator of Beth El Synagogue Center in New Rochelle, Irwin Davison, said his congregation normally has a "fairly stringent level of security for the High Holy Days. We’re pretty sensitized to the security issue, and we’ve always tried to provide a high comfort level to all our congregants."
In the wake of the Los Angeles shootings, the Westchester Jewish Conference organized a meeting that brought together Westchester District Attorney Jeanine Pirro and police officials with representatives of Jewish organizations to discuss security measures against local terrorist acts.
As a follow-up, the conference sent out a list to its 114 member organizations suggesting that each institution have a security committee, have staff wear identification badges at work, keep doors locked and carefully check deliveries.
Patti Wollman, the nursery school director of Congregation Habonim in Manhattan, said half of the synagogue’s 400 families are Holocaust survivors for whom security is especially important. And she said the parents of the nursery school children have also expressed concerns.
"But the 20th Precinct has been sending police into the building two or three times a week to talk to people and find out who is there," she said. "Talk about good community relations.
"We have always had security but we’re now making people cognizant of it. What happened in Los Angeles could happen anywhere. When I saw those little kids: they could have been mine."
Asked if he thought there was a greater probability this year of anti-Semitic attacks, New York City Police Commissioner Howard Safir told The Jewish Week: "I hope not, but we do worry about it. … The truth is that it’s very hard to protect against deranged individuals."
Mike Zimet, who runs a security firm in Riverdale that bears his name, said synagogues should review their security measures with a trained professional. Both the Police Department and the Anti-Defamation League offer that free service. And for the holidays themselves, Zimet said, a private security team should be hired "not just to ask for tickets but to look for potential troublemakers and someone who doesn’t appear right."
He suggested that synagogues check the tickets of everyone seeking to pull into their parking lots. Zimet said also that they should post signs at their entrance stating that everyone entering is subject to body and bag searches, and that congregants be asked not to bring large bags into the synagogue.
"The sign is important because it tells people what is happening and alerts them to the fact that they could be searched," said Zimet. "Often nuts and terrorists pick holidays with large crowds to make their statement."
Safir, at a Manhattan meeting of synagogue representatives Tuesday, said the authorities are not aware of "any organized [terrorist] groups operating in New York City. That doesn’t mean there arenít disturbed individuals who could take crazy actions like Mr. Furrow did. We’d be happy to visit any location and provide you with the information you need to make your institutions more secure."
He said there would be additional city police on the streets during the High Holy Days and that "this year we are particularly sensitive [to the holidays] because of what happened in California."
The conference, held at UJA-Federation headquarters and sponsored in part by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, also heard from Lewis Schiliro, the assistant director of the FBI’s New York office. He said that although authorities know of no organized hate groups in the city, the Internet carries many hate messages. Schiliro suggested that institutions have a "mechanism in place" to handle mailed packages from unknown individuals.
Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, said he too encouraged synagogues to implement security measures and to be vigilant, especially during the holidays. But he said he did not believe Jewish institutions should cancel any plans because of security concerns.
"I think that is not the way to go," he said. "I don’t think the community should change doing anything except add things if they feel the need for it." With reporting by Hillary Larson in Queens and Jane Linker in Westchester.
- New York City Police
- Mike Zimet
- Benjamin Smith
- Buford Furrow
- Vanderbilt Parkway
- Belle Harbor
- Beth Chai
- Howard Buechler
- 4th of July
- Hillary Larson
- Howard Safir
- Jeanine Pirro
- assistant director
- San Jose
- Jane Linker
- Jacob Reiner
- Jeffrey Martin
- Patti Wollman
- Elaine Greenwald
- Lewis Schiliro
- Valerie Leibler
- Irwin Davison
- San Francisco
- Abraham Foxman
- the Jewish Week
- Staff Writer
- Social Issues
- New York
- Los Angeles
- hate crimes
- Stewart Ain
- Anti-Defamation League
- Federal Bureau of Investigation
- District Attorney