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In Era of Terror, Jewish Groups Coordinate with Federal Government

June 16, 2004
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A preparedness plan to alert Jewish leaders and facilities about imminent terrorist threats is now operational and is being coordinated with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Proponents say the Secure Community Alert Network, or SCAN, has been put together and tested. In case of a terrorist threat, the system can alert leaders of major Jewish organizations simultaneously.

Created earlier this year by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group, the program is a step toward preparing the Jewish community for threats it faces as a possible target of terrorism.

The program is designed to provide specific instructions for what synagogues, Jewish offices and other sites should do when a threat occurs. Proponents say it could save Jewish lives.

Tom Ridge, the homeland security secretary, praised the program Monday in a briefing with Jewi! sh officials. Ridge suggested SCAN could serve as a model for other communities, participants in the meeting said.

“The secretary was very receptive to the system that they put in front of him,” said Michelle Petrovich, spokeswoman for the department’s division of information analysis and infrastructure protection. “We certainly look forward to having future discussions as to how we can use it as a model and integrate it into the systems we currently have.”

The department is looking to cooperate with the Jewish efforts. Working groups will begin this week to identify ways to coordinate information.

“Anything we can do to make it easier for them to communicate with our community is important,” said Stephen Hoffman, UJC’s president and CEO.

But questions remain as to how SCAN will work in an actual emergency, and whether the right information will get to the right people.

It’s easy for law enforcement officials to identify people who must be notified when t! here is a threat against a specific institution. But SCAN can be most useful when the threat is vague and a lot of people need to know about it.

More than a year ago, federal officials informed some American Jewish organizational leaders on a Friday evening of intelligence suggesting that a hijacked oil tanker could be used to attack a synagogue. But it was unclear how the information should be forwarded to other Jews.

“We had to start calling individual synagogues,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, the President Conference’s executive vice chairman. “It was ridiculous.”

Under SCAN guidelines, the information about a threat, and suggestions for an immediate response, will be forwarded to an outside firm, Dialogic Communication Corp. Dialogic then will begin calling the leaders of American Jewish organizations such as the religious movements, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Anti-Defamation League.

“We’re going to be able to give that information with as much specificity, with as much detail as we can possibly get,” said Steve ! Pomerantz, a former FBI assistant director who now chairs SCAN’s Law Enforcement Advisory Board.

Dialogic will try to contact the designated Jewish leaders by any means necessary and, if it can’t, will move on to secondary officials in the organizations.

It then is up to each individual group to inform members and institutions such as synagogues, community centers or federations. Many groups are being encouraged to provide Dialogic with a phone chain of their affiliates.

“It’s vitally important,” said Ethan Felson, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs’ assistant executive director. “Our challenge will be ensuring that every segment of our community takes this seriously.”

The program has worked in tests, Hoenlein said.

But some questions remain unanswered, such as what type of threat triggers what response.

Hoenlein said Jewish professionals can notify Dialogic directly of imminent threats, while other non-life-threatening information will be evaluated! by members of a board of Jewish organizations before being circulated .

It remains unclear how threats are evaluated for imminence and what sources will be trusted as authentic. But Pomerantz said that if law enforcement has found the threat substantial enough to inform the Jewish community, it likely will be forwarded to Dialogic.

Other Jewish officials have said they would like more time to be spent training synagogues and other Jewish sites on what they should do in an emergency and how to guard against terrorist threats. They are looking to Homeland Security officials to provide some answers in the working group meetings this week.

The goal is for SCAN to become an independent non-profit group, and to expand its mission to include educating the Jewish community on terrorism threats and preparedness, Hoenlein said.

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