It was tempting to alliterate the murders at the Congregation Tree of Life last month as the Pittsburgh pogrom. But pogroms were mob violence, conducted with the passive acquiescence of the legal authorities. (In American history, these are called “race riots.”)
There was no mob in Pittsburgh; there was just one man. And the police ran in, guns blazing, to stop him.
Here in New Jersey, the terror in Pittsburgh brought similar promises of protection from public officials.
Last Thursday, New Jersey State Assembly representative Gordon Johnson of Englewood (D-37) crossed the bridge for a joint press conference with New York Assembly representative Walter Mosley of Brooklyn (D-57), arranged by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The two legislators offered proposals in the wake of the Pittsburgh attack to strengthen penalties for crimes committed in synagogues and other houses of worship.
“This tragedy requires a regional response to enhance public safety within our religious institutions,” Mr. Johnson said. “No one should have to practice their faith under the threat of violence because of their religious beliefs.”
One proposal would stiffen penalties for having an unlicensed gun at or near a house of worship, making them the same as those now on the books for having a gun in a school.
The other would require consecutive rather than concurrent sentences for killings in or near a religious institution.
“We have stood at vigils, we have commemorated those whose lives were horrifically snuffed out simply because of their desire to pray to God and proudly practice their religious faith,” Michael D. Cohen said. Mr. Cohen, of Englewood, leads the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s east coast office. “Our religious sanctuaries must remain a safe haven, and let us join together like we did today in ensuring the safety of our friends and family whenever they enter a house of worship.”
That evening, in Teaneck, 150 people gathered to hear public officials speak about their commitment to keeping their community, and their houses of worship, safe. They also talked about helping their constituents through the Department of Homeland Security’s nonprofit grant program, which has enabled many local synagogues and schools to upgrade their security in recent years. The meeting was organized by Teaneck councilman Elie Katz.
“Houses of worship should be places that are opening and welcome, but we should understand the environment we live in,” Teaneck’s Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin said. “Each synagogue, each mosque, each church, each school, each day care center, should have a security team. They should call the Teaneck police and ask them: How can we improve our security.”
Congressman Josh Gottheimer (D-Dist. 5) touted the success of the Homeland Security grants, which, he said “brought in $1.5 million for our district.
“We say Kaddish after someone dies,” he said. “It doesn’t speak of death, but of peace. May our hearts find a measure of comfort. We should never give up hope. We live in the greatest country in the world with the best people protecting us.”
Teaneck’s acting municipal manager, Dean Kazinci, is a former Teaneck police captain.
He urged synagogues to take advantage of the risk assessor in the Bergen County Prosecutor’s office, “who will provide a free risk assessment to any house of worship or store.
“If you see something, say something,” he said. “I can’t say enough how important this is. Please don’t ever be embarrassed or afraid to call. The police department is on duty seven days a week, 24 hours a day. That’s why they’re there.”
“Our houses of worship are some of our most sacred spaces,” John Paige of the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness said. There are three lines of defense the office offers, he continued. The first is “facility assessment tools. A team will come out to your religious institution and evaluate what the site looks like.
“The second aspect is active shooter training, in case what happened in Pittsburgh happens in New Jersey. We want to make sure every member of your religious community knows what to do.”
The third, he said, echoing Mr. Kazinci, is reporting suspicious activity.
“This is the critical part. If you see something, say something. Everyone in this audience is the first line of defense. Nobody knows your community better than you. If something seems unusual, you need to report it.” The office’s website at njohsp.gov, he added.
New Jersey State Assembly representative Valerie Vainieri Huttle of Englewood (D-37), who chairs the state homeland security and preparedness committee, spoke on behalf of “two very important pieces of active legislation” she hopes will soon pass the legislature and be signed by the governor.
One would expand a pilot state security grant program, designed to fund security in areas outside of the federal grant’s geographic purview. Under the proposed amendment to the program, institutions could receive grants for target hardening, rather than only for security personnel, as the law now provides.
The second is a bill that the Orthodox Union has actively pushed in the wake of the Pittsburgh attack. It would bring “$11 million of additional money to local districts to be used for security by yeshivas and other parochial schools,” she said. “It would increase funding per pupil from $75 to $150.
“We believe this will give our children protection. Each child is precious and valuable, wherever he is at school.”
Dena Seelenfreund is the New Jersey regional manager for Community Security Service, the national organization that trains volunteers to provide security in synagogues. “We’re inundated right now with requests for security training from across the country,” she said.
She spoke of the importance of “situational awareness.
“A vast majority of attacks are preceded by surveillance,” she said. “The people at their own facility know their own facility best. We layer tried-and-true security techniques so volunteers are able to detect signs of trouble. We focus on deterrence, access control, perimeter control, and communication. We train our volunteer teams how to report properly to the police.
“We focus on the human elements of security. We believe the human element of security drives all others.”
She echoed the call for synagogues to take advantage of the chance to get a risk assessment from local law enforcement. “They’ll point out your vulnerabilities,” she said. “You’ll be able to address the vulnerabilities.”
Juda Engelmayer also spoke as a CSS volunteer. He said he recently had been at a Fort Lee synagogue. “I came a few minutes late and wandered around until I found the main sanctuary,” he said. “If I came to do any harm, nobody would have known it.
“It’s unfortunate. We want a house of worship to be open, but a simple lock, a buzzer system, might be the difference between safety and not. There are plenty of ways you can keep your synagogue and church and mosque open while at the same time acknowledging the need for safety,” he said.
“We need you to help us,” Teaneck Deputy Police Chief John Faggello said. “You are our eyes and ears out there. If anybody has any questions, we have an open door policy.”
And finally, he said, despite the need to pay attention to security, “Acts of terror are down since the 70s. The number of incidents are down. We’re not trying to scare you.”