The nation’s Jewish communities are on high alert this week after the Bush administration upgraded the country to "orange alert" (the second-highest warning) in response to potential terrorist attacks by al Qaeda in the United States.
In New York, the Jewish Community Relations Council warned several thousand area synagogues, Jewish schools, community centers and hospitals to upgrade security for their buildings’ ventilation, heating and air conditioning systems in case of a chemical or biological attack by the Islamic terrorists.
"Generally speaking, we know that New York City is the No. 1 target and we know that the al Qaeda leadership has expressed specific interest in attacking Jewish institutions," said David Pollock, the JCRC’s associate executive director.
In Washington Tuesday, CIA director George Tenet revealed that reports of planned attacks against the United States "are the most specific we have seen" and are consistent with previous al Qaeda plots.
"This is not idle chatter on the part of the terrorists," Tenet said, adding that the number of messages being sent to and by terrorists is the highest since the Sept. 11 attacks.
U.S. intelligence, he said, has been hearing "chatter" pointing to "plots that could include the use of a radiological dispersion device as well as poisons and chemicals."
The government’s warnings came as the United States mobilized for a possible invasion of Iraq and the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca that culminated in Saudi Arabia.
A crucial question for the Jewish community this week is whether these new U.S. intelligence reports specified Jewish institutions.
Tenet did not name Jewish institutions, but an exclusive report on Newsweek’s Web site said the current intelligence reports "pointed to the possibility of multiple imminent attacks by al Qaeda against Jewish groups and Jewish-owned businesses": particularly Jewish-owned hotels.
The report has caused alarm in the Jewish community.
"We’ve got people in the Jewish community hysterical thinking it’s just the Jewish community," said an official for a national Jewish group who asked not to be named.
But several counterterrorism experts and Jewish officials told The Jewish Week they questioned the premise of the Newsweek piece because government intelligence briefings they received did not specify Jewish institutions being under any greater threat than they are now.
As support, the Newsweek article quotes Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, as saying the FBI during a briefing with him last Friday "did appear to focus on one area: to identify hotels that are owned by Jews."
But on Monday, Foxman disputed the information Newsweek attributed to him.
"I didn’t say that, and the FBI didn’t focus in on this," he told The Jewish Week.
During his briefing with the FBI at the Breakers hotel in Florida, Foxman said the FBI provided no specific information about Jewish institutions.
"They just said there was an alert and we want to make sure the Jewish community also pays attention to it," he said.
Foxman emphasized that he was told the elevation to orange was not due to the concern over the targeting of Jewish institutions.
Yehudit Barsky, director of the Division on Middle East and International Terrorism for the American Jewish Committee, called the Newsweek report "contextually flawed."
"The story makes it sound like there are specific threats against Jewish institutions, and I’m not aware of that," she said.
Rather, Barsky explained, the emphasis of the orange alert is al Qaeda attacks against "soft targets" in the U.S.: for example, civilian sites such as banks, shopping malls and office buildings. Among these soft targets are Jewish institutions and organizations, she said.
But these fine distinctions may be small comfort for the Jewish community.
Indeed, last April the FBI warned Jewish community leaders that American troops in Afghanistan uncovered documents that listed the names of a dozen American Jewish groups. Terrorism experts and Israeli officials determined that proved al Qaeda is targeting Jewish sites.
Orange alert means there is a high risk of terrorist attacks, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. It is one step above yellow, which the nation was under before last Friday, and one step below red, the highest risk of terrorist attack.
Under the orange alert, federal, state and local law enforcement agencies are supposed to coordinate more closely and prepare to execute contingency plans.
After the orange alert was implemented last Friday, masked anti-terror police with machine guns stood outside the grand Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue, and bomb-sniffing dogs were spotted outside of UJA-Federation headquarters on East 59th Street.
At Lincoln Square Synagogue on the Upper West Side, officials sent a letter to members advising them to "congregate and shmooze" inside the building after services instead of outside, "where a crowd standing around and socializing might present an awfully easy target for terrorists."
Lincoln Square, like other congregations, also was considering installing barricades outside the building to keep dangerous vehicles away.
"We’re urging everyone to engage in disaster emergency preparedness planning," said the JCRC’s Pollock, including formulating evacuation plans, preparing a special room as a "terror shelter" for children and increasing the amount of "visible security" like lighting systems and armed guards.
The latest JCRC alert (the fifth since 9-11) specifically urged Jewish institutions to upgrade basic security, especially the building’s air intake system.
"People in the building should know how to shut off the ventilation system immediately" in case of a chemical, biological or radiological attack, he said.
"Concern over the vulnerability of these systems as part of a possible terrorist attack comes in light of recent general assessments over al Qaeda’s ability to launch a chemical, biological or radiological (CBR) attack," according to the Feb. 4 JCRC alert signed by Deputy Chief Michael Tiffany, commanding officer of the New York Police Department’s Intelligence Division.
Asked about the level of response, Pollock said Tuesday, "I have tons of people asking for more information."
Some local Jewish organizations told The Jewish Week they put increased security measures into effect this week but would not offer details. That, said a spokesman for UJA-Federation, "would defeat the purpose of security."
A spokesman for Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx said his hospital had taken "appropriate measures" but declined to elaborate, as did Beth Israel Medical Center and Mount Sinai Medical Centers in Manhattan and Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn.
One community center director said he feared conversations about security would further rattle worried members.
But Jews interviewed at various centers and synagogues around the city refused to be intimidated by the alert, accepting more extensive security searches at the front doors and the resulting longer waiting times to get in.
Carolyn Handel, who takes a yoga class at the 92nd Street Y on the Upper East Side, said she had no second thoughts about going to an identifiably Jewish building.
"I think [the terrorists] are probably looking for massive targets. I don’t think this is a big enough target," Handel said.
At the Central Queens Y in Forest Hills, Limor Levy, walking out with her baby in a carriage, said, "We’re not scared."
Members came with questions, said executive director David Posner.
"They’ve been asking when we’re moving into security mode," he said. "They’re asking questions, but [the FBI warning] hasn’t curtailed their participation at the Y."
With new security measures adopted by the Y, "We’re safer than in Israel," said Levy, a sabra.
Inside the Y, the lobby was filled with families and senior citizens.
Karl Waxman, a retiree, works out regularly at the Y. "I’ve been coming here every day for 12 years," he said. "I’m not going to change my way of life."
Christina Vrachnos, who works out at the new JCC on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, refused to be intimidated by the orange alert.
"If anything, I feel safer here," she said at the JCC entrance on Amsterdam Avenue.
Rabbi Eve Rudin Weiner, director of the North American Federation of Temple Youth, the Reform movement’ s youth arm, was about to meet with FBI and law enforcement officials Tuesday before the opening of NFTY’s national convention in Washington.
"We’re taking everything seriously," she said. "We’re not canceling anything, but we are consistently being informed by local and federal authorities and taking all precautions."