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Op-Ed: Jewish community cannot be complacent on security

NEW YORK (JTA) — Despite concerted global efforts in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks that have disrupted plots and constrained al-Qaida and other terrorist groups’ capabilities to strike the United States, our nation and our community in particular face a persistent and evolving terrorist threat, primarily from violent Islamic extremists, but also from lone wolves, white supremacists and others that espouse hate and embrace a range of extremist ideologies.

In just the past several months, our nation has faced a range of complex and dynamic threats from terrorism. Networks linked to or inspired by al-Qaida in Pakistan, Yemen and other hot spots continue to train operatives and plot attacks against the United States. Additionally, we have seen firsthand that we are not immune to the emergence of homegrown radicalization and violent extremism.

In 2009, the exponential increase in domestic plots in the U.S. put the threat of homegrown terrorism on center stage. In a recent speech, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano remarked, “Home-based terrorism is here … and like violent extremism abroad, it is now part of the threat picture that we must confront.”

As Jewish communities begin preparations and celebrations for Passover, we must remind ourselves to remain cognizant of the current security environment and remain vigilant, particularly when there is a need for a balanced approach to securing our institutions, agencies and organizations over coming the holiday.

This approach should not be just about employing more security guards or buying more technological equipment. It is about approaching security in a different, more comprehensive manner. It is about building a culture of security. It is about ensuring that the one person accountable for your institutional security is trained and tested. It is about considering the realm of possible threats and developing proactive solutions, testing your emergency plans through tabletop exercises and ensuring that you have active shooter and evacuation measures ready to be implemented.

It is about training all new and current staff on how to identify suspicious persons and report activities before they occur. It is about forming partnerships with your local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to give others a stake in ensuring that all that can be done is done.

When organizations commit time and resources to a serious focus on security, they can minimize risk and create tangible value. A thoughtful security infrastructure supported by dedicated, energetic staff will offer an additional layer of defense against the potential for attack or disruption.

Never before has confidence in security been more critical. Homeland security for Jewish institutions has emerged as an unprecedented concern. The United States is engaged in a war against terrorists who want to attack Americans and Jewish targets here at home. Unfortunately, some institutions and organizations still fail to demonstrate sufficient urgency, focus and attention to safeguarding against the heightened risk facing the community.

The threat is not restricted to high-profile cities such as New York and Washington, D.C. In fact, tighter security measures in those cities may convince terrorists to seek softer targets in less-prepared and populated areas of the country.

Complacency is a challenge we all face, but at this time of increasing uncertainty, we need to ensure that security remains an ongoing process. At SCN, we realize that each person working, volunteering and or participating in the organized Jewish community — at a synagogue, JCC, federation, day camp or social agency — is the critical ingredient in securing our community. Who that person is, what that person thinks and how that person reacts may make the difference between calm and calamity.

As our communities have come to know, credible information and information flow is the lifeline during a crisis, disaster or threat situation. Knowing when and where to evacuate during a disaster, and whether a shooting at a synagogue is an isolated attack or part of a larger operation are just some of the scenarios that impact our facilities and communities.

During a threat or crisis, Jewish leaders are required to make decisions that can impact an entire community. Rarely do incidents of this nature remain isolated events. The Jewish community has been forced to spend millions of dollars on security equipment, guard protection and other security expenditures to create safer, more secure facilities and communal places.

Terrorism-related events targeting synagogues or other Jewish organizations create a ripple effect that impacts the entire American Jewish community. Sending children to Jewish day schools and synagogue services, or enjoying recreational activities at Jewish community centers are all decisions that may well be predicated on a terrorist threat or incident, and the ability to make an informed assessment and decision based upon the best available information we have during the current situation.

That is why the community has come to rely on SCN communications: “The process of providing our community with information that serves to reduce anxiety and fear as well as provide suggestions for planning that will assist the public in responding appropriately to some crisis (or impending crisis) situation.”

Our nation and community will continue to face complex and dynamic threats from extremism and terrorism. The immediacy of the threat of terrorism provides the American Jewish community with a compelling incentive to take awareness, preparedness and resiliency efforts seriously. But our response will be appropriate and measured, devoid of the fear that terrorism seeks to instill.

(Paul Goldenberg is the national director of the Secure Community Network, which serves as the central address for the American Jewish community on security matters.) 

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