Staying vigilant, staying safe

Staying vigilant, staying safe

Protecting ourselves and our shuls during the High Holy Days

Sheriff Anthony Cureton opens the conference on security.
Sheriff Anthony Cureton opens the conference on security.

Synagogue security is always on our minds, whether we are shul administrators, synagogue leaders, or congregants. And with the many unfamiliar faces that flood our synagogues on the High Holy Days, these thoughts are, understandably, more immediate than ever.

Gerard (Jerry) Dargan, the community security director at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and a retired captain in the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, is working to ease those concerns.

Mr. Dargan began his position with JFNNJ in March. Since then, he has been in touch with all 82 synagogues in the federation’s catchment area, “and visited 95 percent of them,” he said. All of them “feel more concerned than ever, with the horrible things we hear on the news,” horrible things that include the mass shooting at Tree of Life congregation in Pittsburgh.

The federation, Mr. Dargan said, “is one of first points of contact shuls make if there’s an issue. I make sure that they report any incident. You don’t know the importance of an incident initially, but you may see something or notice something that may help prevent” an attack in the future.

“For a long time, some institutions got used to receiving harassing calls or threatening letters,” he said. “It’s important to let me know, to let the local police know, to make sure they’re tracked and documented.”

Law enforcement, from the local level “all the way up to Homeland Security, has been fantastic,” he said. “They let us know of threats, and we can put it out on our communications chain.” For example, he said, “We were contacted by our law enforcement partners after the shooting in San Diego to get out the message about it.” Again, the aim was to remind the community to notify the local police about anything out of the ordinary. “There may be a suspicious vehicle outside the synagogue, and we disseminate this information to make synagogues aware if they see the same thing.”

When he talks to synagogue leaders, Mr. Dargan tells them about the grants that are available to enhance synagogue security. A recent statement from JFNNJ reported that increasing numbers of nonprofit organizations of all religious denominations “are vying for federal and state funds to pay for either security personnel or target hardening improvements.

“Targeting hardening improvements such as better lighting, closed circuit television, bollards, and blast-proof film are all eligible for reimbursement. The security personnel grant is aimed at providing funds to enable the hiring of a security guard.”

Chaplain Joel Friedman of the Bergen County Sheriff’s Department provides an overview of the High Holy Days.

Among the grant recipients this year was Temple Beth El of Jersey City, which worked closely with Mr. Dargan to prepare its grant application. One of his greatest assets, he said, “is my network of law enforcement officers from the local to the federal level.” In addition, “I was born in Hudson County and spent my first eight years” in law enforcement there; his next 18 years were in Bergen County.

“It’s been a pretty good year in terms of securing grants,” Mr. Dargan said. Indeed, according to the JFNNJ statement, “this year 20 synagogues/organizations received state grants totaling $320,000, and nine synagogues received federal funding totaling over $800,000.”

Most shuls hire security personnel from their local police department but some hire private security companies. “We have vetted some and made recommendations,” Mr. Dargan said, noting, however, that it’s not just hiring security personnel that is important. “It’s important to concentrate on target hardening, such as anti-ramming devices, security cameras, panic buttons, and lockdown systems. Also, training is very important.”

He pointed out that while each shul will determine the level of its own security, there are homeland security best practices that give both congregants and synagogue leaders options for training and practice. He noted as well that threats aren’t only from terrorists or anti-Semites but, say, from a disgruntled spouse seeking to harm his or her partner.

Clearly, he acknowledged, security concerns are more pressing on the High Holy Days. On a regular Shabbat, “it’s easier to recognize regulars. On the High Holidays, there’s an influx of unfamiliar faces,” including visiting family and friends. “Tickets  help,” he said. “But everyone has to be on the alert. Don’t be afraid to question someone, or have the security officer interact with him.”

While there have been no specific threats made this year, “as time goes on, everyone has to be more cautious, whether at shul or school, or at a mosque or church. It’s a never-ending process.”

Last Friday, the Bergen County’s sheriff’s office and the county’s prosecutor’s office co-sponsored a briefing on High Holiday security. This is the first such briefing that Mr. Dargan attended as a “civilian.”

“My takeaway was that towns are accommodating houses of worship with additional security personnel,” he said. In addition to enhanced patrols by active law enforcement officers, “Many shuls are hiring off-duty or retired police officers. There are so many houses of worship in Bergen County. It’s challenging, but the towns are doing a bang-up job on making officers available.”

Nearly 100 representatives from local departments and synagogues attended the conference on security precautions during the High Holy Days.

Synagogues, he said, have the option of employing an armed security guard. Of the many synagogues he has visited, the majority that hire security personnel chose to have that officer armed.

At Friday’s briefing, speakers included  Bergen Sheriff Anthony Cureton, Bergen  Prosecutor Mark Musella, state Attorney General Gubir Grewal, State Police Col. Patrick J. Callahan, Bergen Executive Jim Tedesco, Bergen Freeholder Vice-Chair Mary Amoroso, state Division of Criminal Justice chief Weldon Powell, and state Office of Homeland Security chief of staff Patrick Rigby.

The sheriff’s office chaplain, Joel Friedman, presided over the briefing, offering an overview of traditions and expectations for the High Holy Days season, from Rosh Hashanah through Simchat Torah. Afterward, more than 100 faith leaders and law enforcement officials in attendance had an opportunity to ask questions.

Sheriff Cureton said that there will be increased patrols around synagogues during the High Holy Days, and he added that municipalities that need additional support will receive it. In addition, two SWAT trucks will be canvassing the county.

His office, he said, “has knowledge of when the High Holidays fall, so we can gauge ourselves when we deploy personnel. Safety is priority number one, and knowing and understanding our various communities is essential.” The briefing also addressed concerns of increased bias incidents, pedestrian safety, and the importance of establishing open lines of communications.

“With the Jewish holidays quickly approaching, we thought it was important to give local religious leaders an opportunity to bring community concerns to the attention of law enforcement and also learn about safety precautions that will be put in place during the busy Jewish high holy season,” he said.

“While there is no current or specific threat, the Bergen County Sheriff’s Office plans on deploying extra patrols to synagogues, neighborhoods with higher Jewish populations, and other potentially sensitive locations during the holy season. By the same token, it is also important for law enforcement to have a constant dialogue with faith communities especially during times of high worship.

“It is crucial that residents feel Bergen County is a welcoming place for everyone, and that starts with making sure everyone knows law enforcement is here to keep us all safe.”

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