Following years of security concerns here because of wars and terrorism in the Middle East, the American Jewish community was on edge this week in the wake of an act of domestic anti-Semitism — an early morning attack on Tuesday at the headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in Crown Heights.
The violence in the Brooklyn neighborhood — committed by an apparently mentally unbalanced 49-year-old man who stabbed a 22-year-old Israeli student in the temple before being fatally shot by New York police — highlighted the vulnerability of many large yeshivot and synagogues in charedi neighborhoods. Those institutions are often open 24/7 for students who end their learning or worship late at night or begin early in the morning.
The Crown Heights attack came almost a month after an assault by two Arab men from east Jerusalem on the Bnei Torah synagogue in the city’s Har Nof neighborhood killed four rabbis and a Druze policeman.
The Brooklyn attack, which is being investigated as a hate crime — the assailant reportedly shouted “Kill the Jews” — has brought calls by security officials for an easing of these open-door policies, which can make schools and shuls inviting targets. No one suggested TSA-type searches at the entrance to Jewish buildings. Rather, security experts focused on the need for more oversight over who comes in.
“Our goal is not to turn Jewish institutions into armed camps. Our goal is to ensure that people are trained to respond to a crisis, to be able to identify suspicious behavior,” said Paul Goldenberg, national director of Secure Community Network, a national organization that helps coordinate security measures for the Jewish community.
Within hours of the attack, he said, his organization received requests for security briefings from several schools and synagogues.
Rabbi Chaim Landa, a Lubavitch spokesperson, said “ongoing” discussions are taking place with the Police Department. The group’s headquarters, at 770 Eastern Parkway, houses administrative offices, a large sanctuary and a yeshiva that is usually open around the clock.
Rabbi Landa declined to discuss specific security measures or likely changes at the building, but said, “it’s something we’re going to look at. If it is necessary, it’s something we will improve.”
Goldenberg said representatives of local Jewish organizations that deal with security matters declined to name other yeshivot or synagogues with problematic open-door policies, for fear of identifying possible future targets, but said they will encourage these institutions to strengthen their security measures in the wake of this week’s attack.
He said the Lubavitch headquarters has “a very, very comprehensive [security] program,” but could not explain how the assailant gained access to the building.
Because of the building’s prominence, officers of the New York Police Department are usually stationed near the entrance.
The victim, Levi Rosenblat, from Beitar Ilit, was taken by Hatzolah ambulance to Kings County Hospital, and was in an induced coma because of bleeding in the brain late on Tuesday, according to the website CrownHeightsInfo. At the time of the attack, he was sitting at a table studying, according to Chabad sources.
While most major Jewish institutions have strengthened their security procedures in recent decades, as threats to and attacks on Jewish sites in the Greater New York area have increased, some large charedi institutions have maintained open-door policies.
Yeshivot and large synagogues that serve as central meeting points “seek to be welcoming so people can pray and learn” at any time, said Goldenberg. “The challenge is, how do we remain open, how do we remain welcoming” but still remain safe?
Secure Community Network is under the leadership of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“I’ve been aware of [the particularly vulnerable position of some large charedi institutions] for years,” Goldenberg said. Once, schools and houses of worship were largely out of bounds for attack. With the growth of international terrorism in the last decade, exemplified by the 9/11 attacks in 2001, that “paradigm” has changed. “In this new paradigm,” these institutions “are now considered soft targets … places of opportunity” by Islamic terrorists, neo-Nazis and other anti-Semites.
In the aftermath of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge fighting against Hamas terrorists in Gaza this summer, attacks on American Jewish institutions are likely to increase, Goldenberg said. “We have seen the institutions become lightning rods for those who want to voice negative opinions about the State of Israel. Extremists have successfully implied that Jewish institutions in the United States are an extension of the State of Israel
“If they strike at these symbols of America, and kill or maim, they have the greatest impact,” Goldenberg said.
He said he has encouraged Orthodox institutions to increase their security profile. “I have spent time at our yeshivas, at their request. They are very aware of the challenges. “Some” have adapted the safety measures he proposed, “some have not,” he said
“The shuls and yeshivos I’m familiar with have at least some security devices (e.g. cameras, alarms) and are locked at night,” Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, said in an email interview. “But the nature of such attacks is that they can’t really be prevented entirely by any such means. Even during daylight, an intruder bent on violence can walk into a shul or yeshiva no less than into a supermarket or school or church or mosque. And there have been attacks in schools even where there were guards present.
“This event is another reminder of how particularly vigilant we Jews have to be at this time of rising anti-Semitism,” he added. “Once again, the sanctity of a shul has been breached by a murderous attacker. In the end, although we properly take what precautions we can, we rely on Hashem for His protection.”
Allen Fagin, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, said the OU will recommend that Jewish institutions apply for federal funding available from the Department of Homeland Security Nonprofit Security Grant Program.
Evan Bernstein, the Anti-Defamation League’s New York regional director, called the attack “a call to action for Jewish institutions across the United States to realize that these kinds of incidents can be prevented” with proper security training. He said the ADL will send an “action alert” to ADL offices across the country urging tighter security “for the entire Jewish community.”
“[Tighter security] is very important for Jewish institutions,” said David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. “The higher the profile of an institution, the higher the likelihood” of it serving as a possible attack site.
“Our general advice is that no unauthorized person should enter the premises — there are bad people out there,” Pollock said. “We’ve been telling [Jewish institutions] that for years.”
“You don’t have to hire security,” Pollock said. “You don’t just put in cameras. It has to be people” aware of potential threats.
The main study hall of Yeshiva University, the flagship Modern Orthodox rabbinical training school in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, is also open at most times. “Yeshiva University places the highest priority on maintaining a safe environment for learning and living,” the school said in a statement. “We’re keenly aware of events — and saddened by them — but, for obvious reasons, we can’t discuss our security programs or plans.”
“We are very grateful to the police for their quick response and are working closely with the authorities in their ongoing investigation,” Rabbi Motti Seligson, a Lubavitch spokesman, said in a prepared statement. “We continue to pray for the young man.”