With the Jewish population of Bergen County on heightened alert, some 200 religious and community leaders gathered last night to discuss the recent string of anti-Semitic incidents in the county with law enforcement and government officials and communal leaders. The meeting was held at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey (JFNNJ) under the joint auspices of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and the Synagogue Leadership Initiative (SLI).

Tension has mounted as the incidents have escalated. They began shortly before Chanukah, when vandals defaced a Maywood synagogue with Nazi symbols. Ten days later. a Hackensack synagogue was similarly vandalized.

Over 200 people attended the Jan. 12 meeting at the JFNNJ offices to discuss the escalating attacks on area synagogues.

Then the incidents moved up to a more dangerous level with the attempted arson at a Paramus synagogue in the early hours of Jan. 4. This was followed exactly one week later by a full-blown firebomb attack at Congregation Beth El in Rutherford one week later.

The attack nearly had tragic consequences because the congregation building also houses the home of Rabbi Nosson Schuman and his family. One firebomb was thrown through a window and ignited his bed. Schuman was able to put out flames and then he, his wife, five children, and his father escaped the building, avoiding serious physical injury. The attack, however,  left a residue of fear mingled with hope.

“I knew there were people who hated me,” the rabbi said at a press conference following the JCRC/SLI meeting, but he cited the outpouring of interfaith support. “What I see is the beauty of the American people,” he said.

Law enforcement officials were part of the audience at the JFNNJ offices Jan. 12.

Becase of the use of a firebomb directed at a religious institution, both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives have joined local law enforcement in investigating the incidents.

The rabbi was joined at the press conference by local government officials, who spoke of their determination to solve the crimes and protect the Jewish communities of Bergen County. They reportedly made similar statements at the main meeting, which was closed to the media.

County Executive Kathleen Donovan said the Office of the Bergen County Prosecutor is working on leads, but “that’s all that we can say” at this time.

Political leaders and government officials held a press briefing following the JFNNJ meeting.

As an immediate step, police officials have promised stepped up patrols around synagogues, but budgets restraints do not allow officers to be stationed around the clock, said Rep. Steve Rothman.

“It doesn’t matter what your race is, what your religion is, you’re entitled to freedom and there is no earthly reason why this kind of hatred at this point in time should be allowed to exist,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg.

“You don’t have to be Jewish to be a victim,” Lautenberg said. “We have to stand together as Americans.”

The incidents were “out of character” for Bergen County, said Rothman. “We will catch these individuals and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law.”

The press conference was an exercise in bipartisanship, as the podium was shared by Democrats Rothman (9th Dist.) and Bill Pascrell (8th Dist.), who are expected to face off in a Democratic primary in June because of a recently announced redistricting plan, and Republican Scott Garrett (5th Dist.).

Pascrell called the evening’s meeting “momentous,” but said “talk is not going to solve this.” He cited the need for security items, such as surveillance cameras and entry card devices, but at the same time he noted the millions of dollars in federal aid cuts now beiung sought in Washington.

“The attack on the rabbi was an attack on me,” he said. “We are not going to balance the budget on the backs of our neighbors,” he said.

Garrett, whose share of Bergen County will increase next year to include a significant portion of such Jewish enclaves as Teaneck and Fair Lawn, called it “profoundly important” that people get together. Citing the community’s unity after the incidents, he said the JCRC/SLI meeting was not a symptom of what is wrong with the community, “but what is right.”

The speakers called the firebomb attack a life-and-death escalation of the incidents.

Donovan, the county executive, said security measures are on two levels. Items such as surveillance cameras, key card entry systems, and lighting are critical, but she stressed the basics, such as locking the door and being aware of the people around you.

She repeated the “see something, say something” reminder that has become a post-9/11 mantra. Police welcome any bits of information, she said, no matter how trivial they may seem.

In assessing the meeting, Rabbi Neal Borovitz, the JCRC chairman, said that attendees took away ideas for heightened security at their institutions, and law enforcement officials had a better understanding of the depth of concern in the Jewish community.

The earlier incidents occurred at Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel in Maywood in the early hours of Dec. 11; a similar attack on Temple Beth El in Hackensack early on Dec. 21; and a small fire set at Congregation K’hal Adath Jeshurun in Paramus on Jan. 3.