An FBI warning that Al-Qaida might attack Jewish targets with gas trucks ignited widespread concern and fueled heightened security in Jewish communities nationwide this week.
From Jewish organization offices to community centers to synagogues, news spread quickly last Friday of the latest FBI terror warning that Al-Qaida operatives at one point discussed attacking Jewish institutions with bomb-laden gasoline tankers.
The Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, both based in New York, alerted member agencies throughout the country about the potential attacks, and many then notified local groups.
“The ADL is advising Jewish institutions to be extremely alert to fuel and tanker trucks parked near their facilities,” said the ADL’s director of security, Robert Martin.
Yet Jewish groups were also being cautioned not to overreact to the fuel-truck alert since, like earlier Al- Qaida threats and subsequent FBI warnings, it did not refer to any specific targets or dates and remained uncorroborated.
“There’s no reason for panic,” said Martin Raffel, associate executive director of the JCPA.
“We’re not saying this is business as usual. This is a time for special vigilance. Prudence and alertness, not panic, is the message we’re trying to get across.”
Still, the latest FBI warning, which preceded a report in The New York Times on Sunday that Al-Qaida claimed responsibility for the deadly fuel truck bombing of a synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba on April 11, inflamed fears nonetheless.
Last Friday, “we were inundated with calls,” Raffel said.
People asked if they should attend Shabbat services, or what kinds of precautions they could take, he said. “People are nervous.”
Hoping in part to dampen such fears, these groups are urging several steps in response to the latest threat, including coordinating security measures with local police.
“We are encouraging the Jewish community leadership in New York to maintain a high level of contact with local police officials, and in addition we’re encouraging vigilance on the part of institutions and organizations,” said Rabbi Michael Miller, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.
“If you hear a rumor or see something suspicious call this number immediately,” the JCRC memo said.
Some moved to take pre-emptive action.
The Orthodox Union scheduled a day of safety training July 10 for synagogues, schools and community facilities.
The O.U. said the session, set for 10 A.M.-3:30 P.M. at its New York City office, would be also be Webcast — at www.ou.org.
Rabbi Moshe Krupka, the O.U.’s national director of community and synagogue services, said the session was sparked by “an alarming increase” in worldwide anti-Semitic violence and the FBI warnings that “terrorists may try to use fuel tankers to attacks Jewish schools or synagogues.
A team of European-based security specialists from the firm Community Security Trust will discuss handling a range of anti-Jewish threats, the O.U. said, including break-ins, suspicious mail or objects, bomb threats, desecration of Jewish facilities, hate mail, personal attacks and even “strangers in our synagogues and schools.”
Around the country, synagogues and institutions reacted swiftly to the latest in a series of terror alerts.
Rabbi William Hamilton, of Congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline, Mass., said he’d met with local police twice since last Friday, and police have increased patrols past the synagogue, located on a main street in the heavily Jewish suburb of Boston.
“Concern was pretty high” among Kehillath Israel’s members after last Friday’s warning, Hamilton said.
At the Jewish Home for the Aged in New Haven., Conn., the threat also sparked some new security measures.
“Once the Jewish Home for the Aged was made aware of the alert, it immediately reviewed its internal and external security protocols that are in place,” said Michael Rosenblut, the home’s administrator/president.
At least one Jewish institution reacted by trying to make itself a less visible target. In the Dallas area, the Akiba Academy’s Camp Kulanu summer camp removed a welcome sign and asked police for extra surveillance.
And at Temple B’nai Israel, in Tupelo, Miss., Shabbat services included a reading of the FBI warning. Though congregants agreed the tiny 25-family synagogue remained an unlikely target, they also decided to remain on guard.
Nervousness about terrorism has been running high for months, and some said they sensed the latest warning did not have the same impact as the World Trade Center attacks last year.
“There was greater concern after Sept. 11,” said Sue Fox, executive director of the Shorefront YMHA of Brighton Beach, in Brooklyn.
Fox said the YMHA has already taken such measures as installing security cameras and hiring unarmed security guards, but she did contact local police to discuss the gas-truck threat.
But Fox added that the latest alert raised some issues that remained unanswered.
For instance, an NYPD alert asked Jewish community leaders to inform police about any meetings that included more than 100 people, she said, but even small facilities like the YMHA hosts several events of that size a week.
Earlier terror warnings about Jewish targets have also met with some skepticism.
In May, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he did not take seriously an FBI alert on the heels of reports that U.S. forces in Afghanistan unearthed Al-Qaida documents listing 12 Jewish groups as potential targets.
While underscoring the need to remain vigilant, Hoenlein called those particular documents outdated and vague.
So far this year, the JCRC has issued four terror alerts based on general warnings by the FBI.
Some Jewish leaders said their communities had long ago beefed up security in response to other threats.
Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, said many Jewish institutions in the Los Angeles area toughened their security after a deadly shooting rampage at a local Jewish community center in 1999.
Such steps included hiring security guards, erecting concrete barriers outside buildings and, in some cases, searching cars. Some synagogues now require guests to RSVP before attending life cycle events, he added.
The same was true in Washington, where many Jewish leaders said security had been stepped up after the Los Angeles JCC attack and reinforced after Sept. 11. The FBI alert was just another reminder to be vigilant, they said.
Rabbis in the Washington area, meanwhile, reported that synagogue attendance was normal at Friday and Saturday Shabbat services.
In Baltimore and Omaha, which are two of the five cities slated to host the 2002 JCC Maccabi Games in mid-August, officials are strengthening security.
At the Jewish Community Center of Omaha, officials have been distributing car tags to members and employees and stopping cars without them. In Baltimore, more police will patrol the teen-athlete games, and fans will not be allowed to carry bags into stadiums.
Though many like Diamond agreed that people should be careful, he also cautioned that they should keep the situation in perspective.
“We don’t want people to be panicked — already people are living with some degree of fear,” Diamond said.
“Don’t not come to synagogue because there’s a tanker truck on the corner.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.