Tuesday was quiet at 12 Eldridge St.
Around lunchtime, a few workers from the Lower East Side neighborhood opened the unlocked front gate at the Eldridge Street Synagogue to eat their meal sitting on the stairs. A group of tourists from Toronto who happened to walk down the street when a tour of the landmark synagogue was about to start opened an adjacent gate, also unlocked, to climb down a small set of stairs to check a notice posted on the door.
Tuesday was the first day this week that the Eldridge Street Synagogue was open after a cover story in Time magazine, “Al-Qaeda in America,” identified the building as a possible target of the Islamic terrorist organization and the New York media gave the synagogue publicity it did not seek.
The fact that the synagogue’s gate was open, and that no police or other security personnel were visible outside, reflected the opinion of synagogue officials and local security experts that the report in Time was a false alarm.
The synagogue, which experienced a diminishing membership through much of the 20th century although it achieved landmark status in 1996, is hardly the most inviting target in New York City for terrorists with anti-Semitic motivations. There are larger, more prominent congregations uptown.
But the likely erroneous report about the synagogue invites another question: How prepared is the Jewish community for an actual threat against its sites?
Almost three years after the 9-11 attacks on the United States, a week after the Department of Homeland Security issued a “high risk” Code Orange alert for prominent financial buildings here, in Washington and Newark, the year-old Secure Community Alert Network emergency warning system did not issue a crisis alert.
SCAN, which includes the nation’s leading Jewish organizations as well as hundreds of Jewish community centers, federations and schools, did not put its member organizations on notice last week because Jewish targets, based on available intelligence information, were not considered particularly at risk. Nor did they do so this week because the report about the Eldridge Street Synagogue was discounted.
The local Jewish community, whose sensitivity to security matters was raised after anti-Semitic incidents during the last decade, has taken the necessary steps to protect its institutions, said Yehudit Barsky, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Division on Middle East and International Terrorism.
Barsky, who declined to cite specific steps taken by Jewish institutions, added that the Jewish community “has been on alert since the city went on alert” last week, although the focus of the national security alert was financial buildings. “This has been going on since 9-11.”
“This has become pro forma whenever there is a security alert,” Barsky said. “That’s something that everyone has undertaken. For us not to think about the fact that Jewish institutions are part of [al-Qaeda’s possible targets] would be foolish.”
Synagogues, for example, were advised last week to discourage their congregants from remaining outside in large groups following Shabbat services, she said.
SCAN did not issue an alert this week, Barsky said, because the 10 participating organizations on the project’s management team lacked “specific” information, for instance when and where an attack on the Jewish community was likely to take place.
The Time article, which was based on intelligence gathered when the house of an al-Qaeda leader was raided July 24 and a load of computerized information was captured, implied but did not directly state that the report about the Eldridge Street Synagogue was based on the captured intelligence.
“Inside the secure war room at the Department of Homeland Security,” the Time article stated, “officials from various agencies marked dozens of potential targets, ranging from the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and the World Bank to New York City’s Federal Hall National Memorial, where George Washington was inaugurated as the first U.S. President, and the Eldridge Street Synagogue in lower Manhattan — a site singled out, an official says, because information on the [captured computer] discs reveals that al-Qaeda may try to target the Jewish community.”
“Did law enforcement say to us that the synagogue is a target?” Barsky asked.
No, she said.
If the answer were yes, she said, “We would advise [members of the SCAN network] to take extra precautions.”
Paul Browne, the New York Police Department’s deputy commissioner for public information, said in a statement, “Contrary to published reports, the Eldridge Street Synagogue has not been identified as a target in recently captured terrorist reconnaissance files.”
U.S. intelligence officials “did not find the name” of the Eldridge Street Synagogue in the captured intelligence files, said David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. “There is no recent specific information on Jewish targets” in al-Qaeda’s crosshairs, he said, but “there’s no reason not to believe that al-Qaeda’s traditional animus towards Jews continues.”
But, Pollock said, “Even a false report can lead to Jewish institutions reviewing their security precautions, and that’s a good thing.” He would not comment specifically on any security changes that might take place at Eldridge Street.
Al-Qaeda was linked to attacks on two synagogues in Turkey last year and on a synagogue in Tunisia in 2002.
A call from The Jewish Week to the Department of Homeland Security for comment on the Time article was not returned.
The 117-year-old Eldridge Street Synagogue, on a narrow street a block from the Manhattan Bridge, continued offering its tours this week and will open as usual this Shabbat for worship services.
“We’re behaving as we usually do,” said Amy Waterman, executive director of the Eldridge Street Project, which administers the building.
No tour groups canceled their reservations after the Time article appeared, she said.
The police will probably add street patrols, Waterman said.
“We’re always security minded,” she said. “This made us more so.”