Bronx plot stirs fears and spurs security review
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Bronx plot stirs fears and spurs security review

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New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, third from left, and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, second from right, visit the Riverdale Jewish Center, one of two Bronx synagogues targeted in a foiled bombing plot, on May 21. The alleged plot has prompted Jewish institutions and agencies to review their security policies. Ed Reed/Office of the Mayor

Law enforcement authorities and Jewish communal leaders are sending the same message following last week’s alleged attempt to bomb two synagogues in the Bronx: Be alert.

“We can’t emphasize enough how critical it is to get every person associated with a Jewish institution thinking about security,” said Etzion Neuer, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey office. “The Bronx incident forces both individuals and institutions to be much more alert and to take incidents more seriously.”

Law enforcement agencies have been on heightened alert around the Jewish community since last week.

“Based upon what happened in New York we certainly are going to step up our visibility at local Jewish institutions, synagogues,” said Dean Kazinci, captain of investigations and the municipal counter-terrorism coordinator with the Teaneck police department, “so that people feel a little more comfortable seeing that officer stopping by.”

He emphasized that the alleged Bronx plot had no connection to northern New Jersey and appeared to be an isolated incident. Still, he encouraged increased vigilance from the community.

“An attack on a Jewish religious institution is really an attack on every religious institution,” he said. “We want to assure the residents here we are doing everything in our power to keep the institutions and schools safe.”

Other area police departments also reported increased patrols of Jewish institutions. Neuer praised local law enforcement agencies and advised Jewish institutions to review their security policies.

Neuer pointed out that investigations in the Bronx revealed that the alleged conspirators surveyed their targets before moving forward. Jewish institutions’ employees and volunteers should be aware of what’s happening around the building, he warned, so that they can spot anyone or anything out of the ordinary.

“We’ve all seen this in Israel,” he said. “It’s the idea of if you see something, say something. When perpetrators are doing surveillance, they often are assessing the vulnerability of a target. If it’s clear a target is a difficult one, then they’ll move on to a different one.”

In a security briefing sent out after the arrest, the national Anti-Defamation League warned that so-called homegrown terrorism is not a new phenomenon, and anti-Semitism has played a role in several past plots.

In 1997, Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer, an illegal Palestinian immigrant, planned to blow up a subway station in Brooklyn to “kill as many Jews as possible.” In 2005, James Elshafay, a U.S. citizen, planned an attack on a New York subway as an act of solidarity with the Palestinians, the ADL pointed out.

The agency issued a handful of recommendations to Jewish institutions as they update security policies:

Remain vigilant of suspicious behavior, including unusual traffic patterns and unwarranted interest in the institution.

Ensure that all staff members, including new personnel, know what to do in case of an emergency.

Review and practice security procedures.

Renew or establish relationships with local law enforcement.

“This is not a time to panic,” Neuer said. “It’s a time for clear thinking and implementing long-term security strategies. That doesn’t mean trying to establish round-the-clock security for the next two weeks and then forgetting about it. Serious planning is setting up long-term strategies to secure institutions.”

Earlier this month, President Obama moved to include $15 million in the 2010 budget for the Urban Area Security Initiative Nonprofit Security Grant Program to help communal organizations enhance their security. Part of the criteria for the funding is to demonstrate a high risk of attack.

In fiscal year 2007, Jewish agencies, schools, and synagogues in northern New Jersey received more than $600,000, including $100,000 for UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey. Thirteen New Jersey nonprofit organizations shared $834,680 under the program last year. Ten of those organizations were Jewish institutions.

Among them were Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford and Jewish Family Service of Bergen County and North Hudson in Teaneck, which each received grants of $75,000.

The 2009 recipients have not yet been announced.

Well in advance of last week’s alleged bombing attempts, UJA-NNJ had scheduled a security briefing for June 1 for communal leaders – including rabbis, day-school principals, and synagogue executive directors – with members of state law enforcement agencies. The federation planned the event with the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security & Preparedness to promote a new program the department launched in December to encourage awareness and report suspicious activity.

“A well-engaged and well-informed citizenry is a critical component of New Jersey’s homeland security strategy,” said Richard Cañas, director of the state’s Office of Homeland Security & Preparedness, in a statement in December. “We need the public’s cooperation.”

After the Bronx incident, the federation decided to open the forum to the entire community.

“It only ties into this recent happening that people need to be cognizant,” said Joy Kurland, director of UJA-NNJ’s Jewish Community Relations Council, which is organizing the event. “We can’t become complacent in terms of institutional security.”

The format of Monday’s forum will remain the same, she said, while the goal remains to increase cooperation between the state and the public. Despite the recent spotlight on security and terrorism, Kurland warned against alarmism.

“Being vigilant, that’s the attitude we want to create,” she said. “We want to create a proactive approach, having people alert and informed.”

N.J. Homeland Security’s confidential 24-hour terrorism tip line can be reached at 1-866-4SAFE-NJ or through e-mail at tips@njhomelandsecurity.gov. The ADL’s Website, www.adl.org, also provides security guidelines. For information about UJA-NNJ’s security briefing, call (201) 820-3900.

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