A new text messaging system will deliver real-time alerts of antisemitic threats as a service to security professionals at Jewish institutions in northern New Jersey.
The NNJ Alert is a collaboration of Secure Community Network, the national security arm of the Jewish Federations of North America, and the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.
The system is expected to be fully operational for the High Holidays and it is free to Jewish communities. It was created by Everbridge Mass Notification and funded by the Chicago-based SCN, which was founded in 2004.
“It’s a mass communication system that will basically allow us to share security-related messages in a matter of seconds,” Tim Torell, the federation’s community security director, said. Alerts will be labeled as general notices, critical incidents, or no-threat incidents to make it easy to identify and address all communications. The text alerts will be sent in addition to emails and automated phone messages, Mr. Torell said, stressing the importance of having many options for an emergency notification system. Because emails can be blocked by spam filters and firewall protections, and because many recipients complain that they clutter inboxes, texts provide a valuable alternative.
“We just get so many emails from so many different sources that it’s so easy to not catch an important one,” Mr. Torell continued. “This is going to be real-time information about an ongoing critical incident, an active shooter or a hostage crisis” like the one at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, in January.
Other incidents warranting a text might be a suspicious-seeming person at a synagogue taking photographs of security systems, Mr. Torell said. Or it might be an aggressive ransomware email circulating through synagogues, day schools, or JCCs.
Mr. Torell expects several hundred people representing more than 100 facilities to register for NNJ Alert. The catchment area is Bergen County and parts of Passaic and Hudson counties.
“This is the next-level way of communicating effectively, specifically around matters of safety and security to the Jewish people,” the JFNNJ’s executive director Jason Shames said. “It cleans up and consolidates all communication tools into one platform whether it’s general, a critical incident, or a no-threat incident. You are far more likely to pay attention and understand the consequences and severity of the message in a much better way.”
Michael Masters, the national director and CEO of Secure Community Network, commended the JFNNJ for “leveraging this important technological platform. Early notification is critical for community leaders and members to take appropriate action, avoid rumors, and receive updates.”
Statewide, 2021 was a record-high year for reported antisemitic incidents, including assaults, vandalism, and harassment. Anti-Jewish bias was cited as a motivation for 347 incidents last year, representing 15 percent of all hate crimes motivated by race and ethnicity, according to statistics compiled by the New Jersey State Police. In just the first six months of 2022, 268 incidents that targeted the Jewish community were reported.
“There’s always something going on in the security world in our Jewish communities,” Mr. Torell said. “There are more threats than there have ever been.”
Mr. Torell came to the JFNNJ 10 months ago after working in counterterrorism law enforcement. The federation established his position after the Tree of Life Congregation massacre in Pittsburgh in 2018.
Eric Kessler, the executive director of the Moriah School in Englewood, agrees that the Jewish community needs more ways of connecting all the agencies and institutions. “God forbid that there is any sort of attack, it will alert everybody that signed up for the system,” he said.
Ira Shinske is vice president of buildings and grounds and vice president of security for Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff; he’s also a retired federal agent who now works as a security consultant in the private sector. He agrees that texting is the way to go.
“You get an alert by text and you see what the situation is,” Mr. Shinske said. “The information will get passed on.”