Threat to shuls neutralized
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Threat to shuls neutralized

FBI Newark office reported threat yesterday; tension still is high

The morning after synagogues and other Jewish institutions across New Jersey activated security protocols and local law enforcement agencies worked closely with them to ensure their safety, the threat has been “identified and neutralized,” Michael Cohen, who is both the eastern regional director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and a town council member in Englewood, where he lives, reported.

He had just gotten off a phone call with Jewish clergy and community professionals and Governor Phil Murphy, who provided the information.

No other details have been released yet; this is an ongoing story.

Last night, synagogues across New Jersey activated their security protocols after the FBI’s Newark office warned of a “broad threat” against them.

“The FBI has received credible information of a broad threat to synagogues in NJ,” the agency’s Newark office posted on social media Thursday afternoon, shortly after briefing Jewish leaders in the state.

“We ask at this time that you take all security precautions to protect your community and facility,” it continued. “We will share more information as soon as we can. Stay alert. In case of emergency call police.

“We are taking a proactive measure with this warning while investigative processes are carried out.” It did not elaborate further.

Local, state and federal law enforcement agencies were collaborating with local Jewish institutions and national Jewish security groups to ensure safety for Jews in New Jersey, home to one of the largest Jewish populations in the United States. On Thursday night, synagogues and schools across the state were messaging community members to inform them about the precautions in place and encourage them to pay special attention to their surroundings in the coming days. At least one synagogue asked that congregants “not take action into their own hands, except as a last resort.”

The alert comes amid broad attention to Jews and the hatred they face that was ignited by antisemitic comments made by rapper Kanye West last month. White supremacist hate groups, including the Goyim Defense League, have adopted West’s comments as a rallying cry, ratcheting up their activity across the United States. Meanwhile, a change of leadership at Twitter has spurred antisemites to target Jews and other minorities online.

Those forces have contributed to threats against Jews in the United States. Widespread bomb threat campaigns disrupted operations at Jewish community centers, synagogues, and day schools many times in recent years; in June, all Jewish institutions in San Antonio, Texas, briefly suspended operations because of an unspecified threat. People who engaged with antisemitic white supremacist groups have carried out deadly attacks on Jews in Pittsburgh and Poway, California, in recent years. An attack against Jews in Jersey City, in late 2019 was carried out by adherents of a violent strain of Black Hebrew Israelite ideology.

Rabbi David Levy is the American Jewish Committee’s New Jersey regional director. He sees the threat as a logical reaction to the antisemitism that’s becoming increasingly visible.

“We in the Jewish community are incredibly disturbed and deeply alarmed,” Rabbi Levy said.  “This is a result of the rising antisemitism that we have been working so hard to combat. I think this makes the point that we can’t sit back when people on social media or in public life make antisemite statements or tweet antisemitic tweets.

“We can’t let it go by. We have to stand up to we have to speak out. And we need allies.

“A lot of the work that the AJC does is gathering our allies, speaking out strongly, and working with our public leaders to combat this toxin that seems to have infected our society. We need to get the word out that there is no place for this kind of hate. We need to speak out loudly, both in the Jewish community and outside it.

“We should never be in a situation where people are concerned about the safety and security of the place they go to connect to God.”

Antisemitism is a byproduct of the troubles times in which we live, Rabbi Levy suggested. “Our society is infected with divisions and belief in hateful conspiracy theories. That is what antisemitism is — at its core, it is a conspiracy theory. And when we as a society allow conspiracy theories to thrive, it is to our detriment.”

“We have to fight back,” he said. “The strongest thing we can do is not allow this to be normalized. We have to stand up and say that there is no place in our world for it.”

All of us “should stay alert, and if you see something, say something,” he said; that catchphrase from the aftermath of the September 11 attacks has new currency now. “W

People should stay alert and if they see something they should say something be in touch with law enforcement if they see something that concerns them.”

On a more general level, “We all have the responsibility, in our day-to-day lives, in our work lives, in our community, to speak out. Not to be afraid to call out antisemitism wherever and whenever we see it. The only way we can put a stop to it is to make it unacceptable again.”

“I believe that because this was such an unusual way of informing the Jewish community that somebody in that FBI Newark field office must have felt a heightened sense of threat,” Jason Shames, the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, said. “Because they sent it that way, we acted with the utmost sense of urgency.

“We mobilized all the operating procedures we have in place. We were well prepared. It starts with training, with awareness, with getting everyone to be more vigilant, and to contact law enforcement.”

“If you see something, say something,” Mr. Shames said, echoing Rabbi Levy.

Local police departments reacted quickly. “The Paramus police department reached out to me almost immediately.”

The federation just instituted a new emergency broadcast system, a way to text Jewish leaders. “It worked,” Mr. Shames said. “And Tim” — that’s Tim Torell, the federation’s director of Jewish community security — “was able to send three or four updates yesterday, that were as reassuring as they could have been, with an underlying threat.

“I am hopeful that this will work out, and no Jewish lives will be harmed. That is always the goal. I don’t know why we always are targeted — but the system works.”

Like Rabbi Levy, Mr. Shames stressed the importance of saying something if you see something. “I know it sounds cliched, but it’s real,” he said. “People feel that they are overreacting,” but law enforcement officials want to assure people that they are not overreacting. “If you’re wrong, it’s okay,” Mr. Shames said. “No harm, no foul.”

Speaking of law enforcement, “we have to give it its due more often,” he said.

Mr. Cohen of the Wiesenthal Center agreed with Mr. Shames.

“We applaud the swift action of law enforcement in New jersey in ensuring that the community is safe, and we are grateful to law enforcement officers who acted so swiftly to make sure that Jewish institutions will be safe and secure.”

An estimated 550,000 Jews live in New Jersey and attend hundreds of synagogues of all denominations. Several major Orthodox institutions, including the second-largest yeshiva in the world, are in the state.

Jewish institutions across New Jersey responded to the threat news on Thursday afternoon.

“We are already in discussions with our security committee, who will be bolstering the Synagogue’s security measures for the coming days,” the rabbi and president of the Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center in Livingston wrote to members. “Please be vigilant when entering and exiting the Synagogue building to ensure that all doors are closed securely, and do not congregate outside the building. May Hashem protect us all from danger and harm.”

In Tenafly, Temple Sinai told congregants by email that it had activated its security protocols, which it said would continued to keep quiet to protect the community.

“Many here in New Jersey are feeling scared and vulnerable; and in the wake of this and other anti-semitic incidents, it’s only natural to be concerned, and to re-assess our vulnerabilities and want to take action,” the message said. “Please rest assured that now, as always, our priority is the safety of every individual who walks through the doors of Temple Sinai.”

Kehilat Kesher, an Orthodox synagogue on the border of Englewood and Tenafly, urged congregants to “stay vigilant but please have a pleasant Shabbat.” The synagogue urged members to notify professional or volunteer security officials with any concerns and not to worry about raising concerns that could ultimately be unfounded.

“We ask that people not take action into their own hands, except as a last resort, or bring weapons to shul, as it may actually impede security procedures and put people in danger,” the synagogue wrote in an email.

Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood exhorted parents to keep their children close on Shabbat. “We cannot effectively manage the security of unattended children,” families there were told.

Meanwhile, the Moriah School in Englewood and the Solomon Schechter School of Bergen County told parents by email that schools were not identified as facing danger.

“Neither the alert nor the threat made mention of other Jewish communal institutions,” Schechter’s head of school, Steve Freedman, wrote in the school’s message. “There is no threat to Schechter Bergen or other day schools in our area. We have been in touch with our Security team and guards as well as the New Milford Police. We will continue to monitor the situation and will remain vigilant in keeping our Schechter Kehillah safe.”

The Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel, organizations that represent Orthodox synagogues, said they were responding to the threat.

Agudath Israel said on Twitter that it was “aware of this and is in touch with law enforcement and is working to spread the message to synagogues and religious institutions in NJ and urges all to take the proper security precautions.”

“We’ve been doing this a long time,” the Orthodox Union’s executive director for advocacy, Nathan Diament, said. About the FBI, he added, “How they’re communicating with us and how they were underscoring how much they wanted the word to get out indicates to me at least that this is pretty serious.”

Jewish Telegraphic Agency/New Jersey Jewish Media Group

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