Jewish communal leaders in the New Jersey area met with FBI leadership at the Newark FBI field office last week to discuss working together to secure Jewish communities and protect them from rising threats of antisemitism.
The December 6 meeting was initiated by the field office in the wake of a security alert issued on November 3 indicating that the FBI had received credible information of a broad threat to synagogues in New Jersey. The threat was identified and neutralized the next day. The goal of the meeting was to discuss some of the details behind the alert and the follow-up work that was done to bring the threat to a resolution with community leaders throughout the state. Representatives of a wide range of Jewish organizations, including all four of the state’s Jewish federations, religious groups including the Orthodox Union, secular Jewish groups such as the Anti-Defamation League, and a charedi yeshiva, Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, were there.
Robert Wilson of Teaneck is the chief security officer for the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest. He was at the meeting as the representative not only of his federation, but of the state’s three others — the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey, and the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey. That was partly the result of logistical demands, but also because “we collaborate a lot,” Mr. Wilson said. The federations face the same threats and deal with them both individually and together.
The meeting was led by James Dennehy, the FBI’s special agent in charge of the s Newark field office, and by Philip Sellinger, the United States Attorney for New Jersey. “They gave us a review of the events leading up to and around the November 3 incident with the gentleman out of Sayreville,” Mr. Wilson said. “If you want to call him a gentleman,” he added. He was talking about the threats made by would-be terrorist Omar Alkattoul, 18, of Sayreville, who said he’d attack New Jersey shuls, and who was arrested and charged. Although he did no physical damage, he unnerved the community.
“They did a really good job of providing us with the opportunity to understand how it evolved from their perspective, and to get our input on how we perceived it, and how we could enhance our relationship with law enforcement,” Mr. Wilson said.
“In the Jewish communal space, the community is on edge as it is,” he continued. “What we want to do is be able to combine our communications to the community with guidance from law enforcement.”
The meeting was a good opportunity for representatives of local Jewish community and law enforcement agencies to meet each other and to understand each other’s structures and resources, he said.
It also was heartening because it showed him and the other leaders of Jewish organizations how seriously the FBI and other federation institutions took both the threats to the community and their responsibility to combat it.
“Dennehy brought all his appropriate representatives from all the critical response units,” Mr. Wilson continued. “The counterterrorism unit, the community outreach unit, and many more. It was an opportunity for collaboration. It was the chance to talk to them, and to each other. And like so many meetings, there was even more of a chance after the meeting to talk to each other, and to start to make real relationships.”
“They are all earnest,” Mr. Wilson noted about the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s leaders. “They are all concerned about what’s going on. That was evident. It was a productive and well-orchestrated meeting.”
Rabbi Yaakov Glasser was one of the OU representatives at the meeting. He is the OU’s managing director for communal engagement and he heads the Young Israel of Passaic-Clifton. Rabbi Glasser explained that the meeting helped demystify the process behind issuing alerts and gave communal leaders an understanding of how the FBI determined that the alert was necessary.
The gathering also was intended to create an ongoing relationship between communal leadership and law enforcement, Rabbi Glasser said, agreeing with Mr. Wilson. “It’s never good for these types of relationships to be forming exclusively in the context of a crisis. There was a lot of talk of ‘blue sky days’ — of meeting when things are calm — so that the working relationship can be established and cultivated. This way, if there is a real concern, those relationships can be activated in a very productive and impactful and helpful way. The importance of having this connection in place was expressed by both law enforcement and communal leaders.”
The participants were very appreciative of law enforcement’s efforts, he continued. “The meeting became an opportunity for the community leaders to express gratitude to law enforcement both for how the entire situation was handled and resolved and for the openness and the desire to develop an ongoing relationship.”
Rabbi Glasser had a unique vantage point at the meeting because of his two roles. After the alert was issued, he participated in a conference call with OU leadership about what the national communal response should be. He quickly realized that he had his own local concerns that had to be addressed, because services in his synagogue were scheduled to take place two hours later. “I remember very vividly getting off that call and then meeting with my synagogue’s president and my synagogue’s security coordinator so we could figure out how to address the situation locally,” he said. “I was involved from a broad communal leadership perspective and was also very much impacted on the ground.
“I shared with the FBI how I experienced the alert as a local synagogue leader who had to respond and react to the information in real time from a very pragmatic perspective. I explained that even though there was a lot that was unknown at the time, just knowing that there was a concern was obviously troubling, but it was also empowering.
“We were able to do something about it.”
Rabbi Glasser stressed that the open dialogue at the meeting was productive and that law enforcement professionals were receptive to feedback and to listening to all comments and ideas. “It was a very impressive display of professional engagement,” he said. A lot of contact information was exchanged at the meeting, and “there’s now someone to call if you have a concern, or if you want to figure out how to address something.”
Overall, Rabbi Glasser felt that it was a very positive gathering. “There was a lot of gratitude and appreciation expressed, and we left with a very deep appreciation for the hard work of the FBI and the related agencies,” he said. “I don’t think we really had any concept of what exactly is entailed, and I’m sure they didn’t share everything with us. I think a lot of our impressions of this kind of activity are formulated only by what we see, and the meeting made it clear that what we see is only the very small sliver of the action that’s revealed to the public and that there is an enormous amount of thoughtful, strategic, and dedicated work by real professionals behind the scenes.”
After the meeting, Rabbi Glasser shared this appreciation with his shul community. ”I thought that it was important for my congregation to know that it means something that we live in a country, and that we live in a state, where there is a group of people who wake up in the morning and dedicate their day to keeping us safe,” he said.
Nathan Diament is the OU’s executive director of advocacy. He lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, but he was at the gathering because he runs the OU’s national advocacy and works with the FBI in that role. Mr. Diament agreed that strengthening the connection between the FBI field office and the Jewish community was an important part of the meeting. “It was useful for more people in the local communities in New Jersey to become familiar with the field office and to meet FBI staff who are meant to be points of contact for the community,” he said. “So if, God forbid, there’s another incident, or something else comes up, the communication will be even quicker and smoother.”
Mr. Diament also noted that the gathering was “an opportunity for community leaders to express appreciation to the local FBI leadership about how aggressively and successfully they dealt with the recent threat situation and for their ongoing work to keep the community safe.”