Vigilance Over Fear

Without a doubt, Jewish organizations are different today than a generation ago. The programs and management of our Jewish organizations have changed in many ways to respond to cultural and demographic differences among Jews. Jewish organizations are also different because of many changes in society.

I think back to my first years in Federation work in St. Louis. We were housed in a 40,000-square-foot office building on a 100-acre Jewish community campus that included a near 190,000-square-foot Jewish Community Center spread across two buildings. Entrance to the campus was unfettered. And building access was managed by receptionists, among them amassing over 100 years of service to Jewish organizations. Simply, these receptionists knew everyone walking across the buildings’ thresholds. Not only did they know you, they knew why you were entering the buildings, and they knew if you were current on your membership dues.

But those days are no more, for many reasons.

The news media has reported on the rash of bomb threats affecting synagogues, Jewish schools, and, primarily, Jewish community centers. On three days spanning the first two weeks of January, over 60 bomb threats were phoned into Jewish institutions in 20 or so states. On January 18 alone, over 32 JCCs received bomb threats.

Almost all of the affected facilities were evacuated, local police and fire searched the buildings, and – thankfully – no suspicious devices were found.

We are part of a nationwide communication, action and resource network of Jewish communities brought together by the Jewish Secure Community Network (SCN). Administrated by Jewish Federations of North America, SCN was created in 2004 as the central address serving the American Jewish community concerning matters of communal safety, security and all-hazards preparedness and response. It sponsors robust training and an expansive communications network. It is the primary Jewish community liaison with federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. SCN operates a full-time threat and information sharing center to monitor and report on threats and security events impacting the American Jewish community. SCN was nationally recognized by then-Secretary Janet Napolitano and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as a model homeland security network and initiative for faith-based organizations.

As in Jewish communities elsewhere, in the Lehigh Valley we take the safety and security of our members, constituents, students and guests very seriously. Under the auspices of the Federation’s Community Relations Council we host an annual security and emergency preparedness workshop. Organization leadership and security liaisons have been privy to presentations by the Anti-Defamation League, the SCN, local law enforcement resources, a private security firm and the local FBI agent in charge. We have sponsored training sessions for receptionists, likely the first to come into contact with unwanted visitors or calls. We review best practices on any number of issues and scenarios.

Understandably, I am not able to articulate all of our security and emergency preparedness plans. But, results of our collective efforts and our ongoing collaboration have seen changes in our facilities, building access, monitoring systems and the training of our organization employees. Procedures are in place and constantly being tested and reviewed. We have ensured that local law and fire officials have first-hand familiarity with our facilities. We have implemented emergency communication mechanisms with local organization security contacts to share information almost immediately with our agencies when we need to send out an advisory. All of this is no small or minimal task.

There are significant real financial costs to our system of organizations. Security and emergency response is not something that can be turned on at the moment it becomes necessary; it is made effective by ongoing vigilance.

The bomb threats, thankfully hoaxes, are a new form of telephone terrorism, attempting to disrupt and create anxiety and fear in our constituents. It is not going to work. Those trying to wreak fear and havoc will fail. We are going to be resolute and strong and we will do what we have to do to protect our constituents and to protect our right as Americans to gather in our synagogues, schools and community centers. Nevertheless we’re not in a position at any time to think that a threat might not be real.  And so we remain committed and we remain vigilant.