WASHINGTON (JTA) — American Jewish groups have been preparing for terrorist attacks similar to the one that struck Mumbai last week.
The leaders of more than 30 Jewish organizations gathered early last month in New York for a “tabletop exercise” that simulated coordinated attacks on Jewish community institutions in multiple locations throughout the United States.
“It was amazingly prescient for what occurred” in Mumbai, said Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and co-chairman of the Jewish group that sponsored the meeting, the Secure Community Network.
Established in 2005, the Secure Community Network coordinates security within the organized Jewish community, disseminating and sharing information among organizations and with law enforcement officials.
Doron Horowitz, the director of community security for the Jewish Federation of Toronto, said last week’s attacks in India confirmed and corroborated the importance of being prepared for such attacks.
The three-hour simulation last month provided community leaders with some key tips on how to respond to such an attack. The group watched as mock newscasts reported on multiple attacks: a firebombing at one synagogue, a machine-gun attack at another and a bomb at a New York Jewish institution. Participants had to formulate a response plan, and the exercise facilitator pointed out vulnerabilities.
"OK, they’ve just entered your institution and they’re on the first floor,” the moderator said, according to one participant. “What do you have in your facility to stop this attack? What don’t you have?"
Among the guidelines for action were drawing up contingency plans, having key phone numbers available and ensuring that staff members are aware of what to do in an an emergency in case the person responsible for security is not on the premises.
"We’re challenging them to react to real-time situations," said Paul Goldenberg, the national director of the Secure Community Network.
The idea is to take that knowledge back to their institutions, along with the procedures recommended by the security experts.
Security experts say simulations are critical to maintain preparedness.
“Anybody can read a manual,” said Rabbi Gary Moskowitz, a former New York City police officer whose Tzedek Task Force on Counterterrorism offers a 50-hour course for religious organizations that includes security drills. “You have to have a performance drill. If you don’t practice it, it’s worthless.”
Allan Finkelstein, the president of the Jewish Community Centers Association, said he will share what he learned in the exercise with his 360 member institutions.
“The key thing is how to help our local agencies go though that kind of training experience,” Finkelstein said. “They need to look at this locally.”
In August 1999, a gunman burst into the Los Angeles JCC and opened fire, wounding five people before fleeing. The man, a white supremacist, later murdered a mail carrier before surrendering to the authorities.
More recently, in July 2006, a Pakistani Muslim gunman opened fire at the Jewish federation building in Seattle, killing one woman and wounding five.
Goldenberg said the American Jewish community isn’t facing any specific threat now, but there is a “heightened state of concern” owing to the targeting of Jews in the Mumbai attacks. He also suggested that the economic crisis may fuel white supremacists and hate groups to target Jews.
In the meantime, the Mumbai attacks have spurred community leaders to action.
Since Nov. 28, when the siege of the Chabad House in Mumbai ended and the hostages were found dead, more than 170 people have downloaded a 200-page manual on emergency preparedness from the Web site of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, according to David Pollock, the associate executive director of the JCRC.
Secure Community Network sent out a notification on the afternoon of Nov. 28 to its member organizations confirming the facts of the attack at the Mumbai Chabad House and issuing several security recommendations. It included implementing a surveillance detection or awareness program to identify and report suspicious activity, and reviewing and testing response plans for lockdowns, evacuations and active shooter scenarios.
The group’s Web site, www.scnus.org, has more information.
North American Jewish institutions have become more prepared and vigilant about security since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Since 2005, hundreds of Jewish organizations, synagogues and schools have received federal aid totaling tens of millions of dollars to pay for security improvements. The money, doled out in increments of less than $100,000, comes from the Department of Homeland Security’s nonprofit grant program.
Goldenberg said the Jewish community could be much more vigilant about security and that there is a proper balance between security and “overload.”
“We’re better than we used to be,” said Stephen Hoffman, the president of the Jewish federation of Cleveland and co-chairman of the security network. But he said security is significantly below where it should be.
In the coming months, the Secure Community Network will partner with the Department of Homeland Security in a new program to train Jewish community professionals throughout the country on understanding and mitigating threats.