(JTA) — Synagogues across New Jersey are activating their security protocols after the FBI’s Newark office warned of a “broad threat” against them.
“The FBI has received credible information of a broad threat to synagogues in NJ,” the agency’s Newark office shared on social media Thursday afternoon, shortly after briefing Jewish leaders in the state.
“We ask at this time that you take all security precautions to protect your community and facility,” the alert said. “We will share more information as soon as we can. Stay alert. In case of emergency call police.”
The FBI’s alert added, “We are taking a proactive measure with this warning while investigative processes are carried out.“ It did not elaborate further.
Local, state and federal law enforcement agencies were collaborating with local Jewish institutions and national Jewish security groups to ensure safety for Jews in New Jersey, home to one of the largest Jewish populations in the United States. Across the state Thursday night, synagogues and schools were messaging community members to inform them about the precautions in place and encourage them to pay special attention to their surroundings in the coming days. At least one synagogue asked that congregants “not take action into their own hands, except as a last resort.”
The alert comes amid broad attention to Jews and the hatred they face that was ignited by antisemitic comments made by rapper Kanye West last month. White supremacist hate groups, including the Goyim Defense League, have adopted West’s comments as a rallying cry, ratcheting up their activity across the United States. Meanwhile, a change of leadership at Twitter has spurred antisemites to target Jews and other minorities online.
Those forces have in the past contributed to threats against Jews in the United States. Widespread bomb threat campaigns disrupted operations at Jewish community centers, synagogues and day schools multiple times in recent years; in June, all Jewish institutions in San Antonio, Texas, briefly suspended operations because of an unspecified threat. People who engaged with antisemitic white supremacist groups have carried out deadly attacks on Jews in Pittsburgh and Poway, California, in recent years. An attack against Jews in Jersey City, New Jersey, in late 2019 was carried out by adherents of a violent strain of Black Hebrew Israelite ideology.
Rabbi David Levy, who heads the American Jewish Committee’s New Jersey office, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the FBI’s warning was unusual and alarming.
“This report stands out because it’s rare to get a report like this in New Jersey,” he said. “We are taking it seriously and I’m grateful for law enforcement is taking it seriously. They are increasing patrol around synagogues and Jewish facilities.”
Levy added, “Synagogues and Jewish facilities are following their plans and procedures for keeping their communities safe.” Many institutions have increased attention to security in recent years, with the support of national Jewish groups and federal funding for security improvements.
One of those groups, the Community Security Service, said it had worked with 30 synagogues to launch volunteer security teams and had trained over 1,000 volunteers in the state in the last 15 years.
“We never are not on high alert,” its national director and CEO, Evan Bernstein, told JTA. “We’re always maintaining a high alert status. When something like this happens, it’s just another reminder that of why we maintain that alert status.”
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said on social media that his office was in touch with multiple agencies, including the FBI and state office of homeland security about the threat. “We are closely monitoring the situation and are working with local law enforcement to ensure that all houses of worship are protected,” he said.
An estimated 550,000 Jews live in New Jersey and attend hundreds of synagogues of all denominations. Several major Orthodox institutions, including the second-largest yeshiva in the world, are located in the state.
Jewish institutions across New Jersey were responding to the threat news on Thursday afternoon.
“We are already in discussions with our security committee, who will be bolstering the Synagogue’s security measures for the coming days,” the rabbi and president of the Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center in Livingston wrote to members. “Please be vigilant when entering and exiting the Synagogue building to ensure that all doors are closed securely, and do not congregate outside the building. May Hashem protect us all from danger and harm.”
In Tenafly, Temple Sinai told congregants by email that it had activated its security protocols, which it said would continued to keep quiet to protect the community.
“Many here in New Jersey are feeling scared and vulnerable; and in the wake of this and other anti-semitic incidents, it’s only natural to be concerned, and to re-assess our vulnerabilities and want to take action,” the message said. “Please rest assured that now, as always, our priority is the safety of every individual who walks through the doors of Temple Sinai.”
Kehilat Kesher, an Orthodox synagogue on the border of Englewood and Tenafly, urged congregants to “stay vigilant but please have a pleasant Shabbat.” The synagogue urged members to notify professional or volunteer security officials with any concerns and not to worry about raising concerns that could ultimately be unfounded.
“We ask that people not take action into their own hands, except as a last resort, or bring weapons to shul, as it may actually impede security procedures and put people in danger,” the synagogue wrote in an email.
Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood exhorted parents to keep their children close on Shabbat. “We cannot effectively manage the security of unattended children,” families there were told.
Meanwhile, the Moriah School in Englewood and the Solomon Schechter School of Bergen County told parents by email that schools were not identified as facing danger.
“Neither the alert nor the threat made mention of other Jewish communal institutions,” Schechter’s head of school, Steve Freedman, wrote in the school’s message. “There is no threat to Schechter Bergen or other day schools in our area. We have been in touch with our Security team and guards as well as the New Milford Police. We will continue to monitor the situation and will remain vigilant in keeping our Schechter Kehillah safe.”
The Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel, organizations that represent Orthodox synagogues, said they were responding to the threat.
Agudath Israel said on Twitter that it was “aware of this and is in touch with law enforcement and is working to spread the message to synagogues and religious institutions in NJ and urges all to take the proper security precautions.”
“We’ve been doing this a long time,” the Orthodox Union’s executive director for advocacy, Nathan Diament, told JTA. About the FBI, he added, “How they’re communicating with us and how they were underscoring how much they wanted the word to get out indicates to me at least that this is pretty serious.”