The fact that Westchester’s Jewish community has been spared serious threats — so far — is no reason to relax one’s guard.
With this in mind, the Westchester Jewish Council held a workshop earlier this month on security for the county’s Jewish organizations and law enforcement professionals.
Concern about security “never goes away,” said Elliot Forchheimer, executive director of the Westchester Jewish Council, which partnered with the Secure Community Network to offer the program at Rye’s Congregation Emanu-El. The Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations created the Secure Community Network in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, to help Jewish institutions across the continent beef up their security.
The Westchester Jewish Council has been working on security issues since 2001 and its council’s security committee meets a few times a year with local Jewish professionals and lay leaders.
“This wasn’t sparked by any incident,” said Forchheimer, but rather about “maintenance mode and staying current.” Plus, because there are always new volunteers and staff at the Jewish organizations as well as new personnel in local law enforcement agencies, the event also helped the council “re-cement relationships.”
Of particular importance was highlighting the “good relationship we have with local law enforcement. They have a stake in the safety of our community,” said Harry Mamaysky, chair of the security committee for the council.
That impressed Irene Lustgarten, executive director of the Community Synagogue of Rye, who was relieved “knowing that the county and local law enforcement professionals are behind the Jewish community.”
“It’s reassuring to know this is a priority for them,” she said.
Like the other participating organizations at the conference, Community Synagogue of Rye takes security seriously. The synagogue had applied for and received a $75,000 grant from the department of Homeland Security in 2012 for upgraded security technology.
Some of the presentation focused on managing the delicate balance between creating security protocols and being able to respond to a specific situation. For example, an organization may have a policy that, under threat, evacuation is the preferred response. That may not be helpful if there is a gunman in the parking lot.
“As much planning and drilling as you do, the bottom line is that each situation is different,” said Stuart P. Skolnick, director of temple operations for Temple Beth Abraham in Tarrytown. “In real life, it’s going to be different. You need to maintain flexibility.” While it’s important to have plans and protocols, participants learned, it’s just as important to empower staff to assess a situation and “make decisions on the spot.”
Another benefit of coming together, said Lisa Feinman, assistant executive director of the JCC on the Hudson in Tarrytown, was learning from one another. “With an issue like security, it is reassuring to hear what you are already doing well and nice to know your colleagues are working through the same challenges,” she said. “Learning from their experiences and being able to share your own is priceless.”
For Robin Rattner, executive director of Bet Am Shalom synagogue in White Plains, participation of significant numbers of law enforcement and security professionals also made it worthwhile. “It’s useful to think through these issues again, and to have the opportunity to meet people in the security field and get their perspective,” she said.
Still, relying on professional law enforcement and security personnel isn’t the only option.
The Community Security Service trains an organization’s own volunteers to “function as trained eyes and ears for the local police, while being sensitive to the community,” said David Dabscheck, the organization’s president and co-founder. “You need a holistic perspective, and the community needs to be engaged and responsible. You can be responsible and effective, and be welcoming as a Jewish community.”
There’s a “fine line between being an armed fortress and being a welcoming community,” agreed Beth Abraham’s Skolnick.
“We can always do more, we can always do better in terms of the steps we take to improve security,” he added.
Towards that end, Forchheimer is setting up meetings between synagogues and local in White Plains, New Rochelle, Larchmont, Mamaroneck “and around the county.”
As Mamaysky said, “We are fortunate of being in the position of responding without having a trigger.” Still, “The only way this makes a difference is if we do stuff differently, and do stuff better. It’ll never end. This is a good step in the process.”