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After Terrorist Threats in Europe, U.S. Jews Stress Security Measures

April 15, 2004
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New reports of terrorist threats against Jewish institutions in Europe underscore the need for American Jewish institutions to get serious about security.

Officials behind a new threat alert system say plots discovered this week against Jewish targets in Hungary and Spain emphasize the need for American Jews to be prepared.

“We have a serious enemy that has threatened to attack us, he has attacked us all over the world, we know he has the capability, and we’re at the top of his enemies list,” said Steven Pomerantz, a retired FBI deputy director and former chief of counter-terrorism.

In January, Pomerantz joined the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the American Jewish Committee and the United Jewish Communities network of Jewish federations to launch the Secure Community Alert Network.

Dubbed SCAN, the system sets in place a management team of 10 permanent organizations and three rotating groups that will evaluate threats and send its assessments to an outside firm based in Tennessee, Dialogic Communication Corp. Dialogic will then alert national Jewish groups, who decide how to contact local offices.

While the system has yet to be tested, the UJC’s president and CEO, Stephen Hoffman, said the reports of potential attacks in Europe highlight its necessity.

“I just see it as a confirmation of why we made the decision to move ahead with SCAN,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman’s comment came as CIA Director George Tenet on Wednesday told a congressional panel investigating the Sept. 11 attacks that it will take five more years for the United States to beef up its intelligence agencies enough to combat al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

SCAN was initially funded with a $25,000 donation, but Hoffman said a donor has provided funding “in the six figures” to beef up the system to train Jewish federations and associated institutions to defend themselves against terrorism.

Ultimately, SCAN is aimed at “raising consciousness” of Jewish institutions about the pressing need to improve security, he said.

“The best defense against what is coming in this world, unfortunately, is to be prepared, and I don’t think we’re prepared enough,” Hoffman said.

It’s difficult to gauge how ready American Jewry is for a potential terrorist attack because officials say no one has conducted a formal review or study of community readiness.

Many organizations, from the Anti-Defamation League to the UJC, have posted information about defensive steps on their Web sites. The various Jewish denominations have long alerted members about security measures.

The Orthodox Union, which has between 500 and 600 member synagogues, produced a Web-cast of a seminar by the British Jewish security organization the Community Security Trust. The union also is working with the Department of Homeland Security on training communal groups, said Rabbi Moshe Krupka, an O.U. spokesman.

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which has 765 members, has posted tips on the Web and urged synagogues to meet with local law enforcement officials to assess security needs, spokeswoman Sarrae Crane said.

The Union for Reform Judaism has distributed information to its 920 member synagogues on how to audit security measures, spokeswoman Emily Grotta said.

Security at most synagogues varies according to the building’s location and size, these officials say. Some larger, more visible synagogues have installed metal detectors, security cameras and station guards, while others have erected traffic barriers, reinforced windows, minimized the number of entrances and used door buzzers.

“No one size fits all,” Grotta said.

The Reform group also has allowed some member congregations to reduce their dues to the national organization so they can pay for their security systems, she added.

So far, few concrete threats have surfaced. In early January, a Reform synagogue, Temple Emanu-El of Westfield, N.J., closed its doors for a day and a half after the FBI field office in Newark received a fax with an unspecified threat.

Carolyn Shane, executive director of the synagogue, said the FBI interviewed several people connected to the fax, but didn’t know if they were suspects or targets.

“We don’t know if it was a real threat,” she said.

Meanwhile, news of potential attacks on European Jewish institutions does “affect the climate in which we are working,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents.

“Everything is important,” Hoenlein said of the European threats. “But I don’t want to exaggerate the significance of any single report. So far we have not had any specific threats here in the United States.”

Ultimately, the community must evaluate the seriousness of each threat and balance the need for security with the need to live life as normally as possible, officials said.

“Every institution needs to constantly reevaluate its security measures and see where they need to be tightened, without at the same time discouraging the use of the building and visitations, which at the end of the day is what these institutions are all about,” said David Harris, executive director of the AJCommittee.

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