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Worries Persist Despite Plan to Thwart Terror at Jewish Sites

January 28, 2004
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When it comes to terrorist threats, it’s time for Jewish institutions to wake up, security experts and national Jewish groups say.

“We can no longer bury our heads in the sand,” Steven Pomerantz, a former assistant deputy director of the FBI, told Jewish groups gathered earlier this month to discuss the new Secure Community Alert Network, or SCAN. “We are the principal targets of Middle East terror in the world today.”

Organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizers and the North American federation system, SCAN has developed a system to alert Jewish institutions in case of danger.

The way the system works, once a “management team” — 10 permanent member organizations and three rotating groups — evaluates the threat, it notifies an outside firm to alert national Jewish groups.

It contacts them through a rollover approach, dialing cell phones and beepers until reaching someone.

National groups then determine how to contact their affiliates, either through their own means or the firm employed by SCAN.

Except for tests, the system has never been used.

According to David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, SCAN is “the best, most comprehensive system that our law enforcement experts could find.”

“The first step forward is developing a communications network,” he said, to share information and dispel rumors.

“The second step forward was introducing Jewish leaders to the very sophisticated security apparatus that British Jewry has developed over the last decade,” Harris said. “That really opens people’s eyes out there to what’s possible and perhaps to even what may be necessary down the road.”

Most officials with local Jewish institutions praise the plan as a good first step to address national Jewish security.

But some say a broader, proactive strategy would better defend Jewish institutions, many of which already receive notification of threats from local law-enforcement authorities.

Carolyn Shane, executive director of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, N.J., which the FBI alerted of a threat last month, says physically securing institutions is a greater communal priority.

“It’s nice to let us know that something bad’s going to happen,” Shane said, “but what good is it if we don’t have the money” to secure the institution?

Securing facilities is “very, very costly, and right now there’s no financial assistance to synagogues who need this kind of protection.”

In Temple Emanu-El’s case, the local police and SWAT team quickly safeguarded the facility, but Shane has learned the best kind of security is visible guards that make would-be criminals “think twice about doing something.”

One of Israel’s top security experts agrees that focusing on prevention is paramount.

“People should be prepared before something happens, and not after,” said Arieh Amit, former police chief of Jerusalem and head of operations for Israeli police. “If a community will not know what to do with the intelligence, it’s nothing.”

Fearing a wave of anti-Semitic attacks after Sept. 11, Amit headed a team of Israeli security consultants that devised contingency plans he hopes to give to Jewish communities around the world.

His prescription, an “umbrella of security to the community,” runs the gamut from prevention and reaction, like training Jewish neighborhood police, to psychological counseling to restore a sense of normalcy after an attack.

The organizers of SCAN say the $25,000 project, begun 13 months ago, is only in its initial stages.

Eventually, SCAN, which has an advisory board of law-enforcement experts, will hire a part-time professional, said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference.

For Jewish security, “would it be optimal if we had a billion dollars?” Hoenlein said. “That’s not the role of SCAN.”

Hoenlein said many federations have created funds to help synagogues and institutions bolster security.

Meanwhile, SCAN’s gradual approach indicates a more muted sense of urgency than was suggested by the Jan. 8 meeting in New York, at which the plan was discussed.

During that meeting, U.S. Jews were warned there that they were seven times more likely to be victims of hate crimes than Muslims.

SCAN’s plan is thin in comparison to the program developed by Britain’s Community Security Trust, a group that has focused on security issues for Britain’s Jews for 50 years.

The operation gathers intelligence, advises local Jewish communities and secures Jewish events and institutions across Britain through offices and volunteers around the country.

“Wherever there are Jews in Jewish locations, there are security volunteers,” a spokeswoman for the Community Security Trust told JTA.

SCAN could learn from the British model, said Nick Bunz, president and acting interim executive director of the JCC of Manhattan.

“They could be a resource as well as just an alert mechanism,” Bunz said. “They could be a professional specialized institution that focuses uniquely on Jewish institutions, Jewish buildings and Jewish events.”

Others say it’s unfair to compare an approach for U.S. Jewry with one for British Jews.

Britain’s Jewish community is the size of Chicago’s, said Rick Katz, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago’s facilities corporation, which operates the real estate for the local federation and its constituent groups.

SCAN is a good start toward thinking proactively, said Katz, but “the jury’s still out.”

“I don’t know if it’s going to be beneficial or not beneficial until we see what the details are,” Katz said. “We know how the technology is going to be used at the upper levels,” but “we don’t know how it’s going to work below that level, and that’s critical to the rapid notification.”

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