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Jewish Communities on Alert After Seattle Federation Rampage

August 1, 2006
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Jewish communities are being urged to remain vigilant, be in touch with police and other law enforcement agencies and review their security arrangements after a fatal shooting at Seattle’s Jewish federation. But leaders of national Jewish organizations report that their institutions are operating as usual, without panic.

“We’ve taken our cue from the Seattle police, that this was an isolated incident by one individual,” Aaron Rosenthal, spokesman for the San Francisco JCC, said of last Friday’s attack, which left one person dead and five injured. “But it’s certainly created a heightened sense of awareness.”

The JCC has been in touch with other local Jewish agencies, including the Anti-Defamation League and Jewish Community Relations Council, “to keep tabs on the community,” and the facility’s security director has “been talking to police about whether there’s a need to step up our security,” Rosenthal said.

“There’s obviously increased anxiety,” said Deborah Dragon of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which held a staff meeting Monday morning to assuage workers’ fears. “As Jewish people, we’re aware that we’re potential targets for hate crime regardless of what’s happening in the Middle East.”

The Seattle attack occurred last Friday afternoon when a Muslim man angry at Israel allegedly took a teenage girl hostage, forced his way through the Seattle federation’s first-floor security door and walked upstairs to the federation reception desk, where he began shooting.

Pam Waechter, 58, the director of the federation’s community campaign, was shot and killed at the scene.

Many Jewish groups around the country reached out to local police, but in some places, police acted first. Rabbi Daniel Isaak of Congregation Neveh Shalom in Portland, Ore., arrived for services that Friday night to see two police cars in the parking lot.

They were “checking someone out,” he reported.

The incident turned out to be nothing, but Neveh Shalom hired a private security firm for Shabbat and much of this week.

“The federation building in Seattle was pretty secure,” Isaak noted. “How do you prevent someone who comes with a gun and holds it to the head of a 13-year-old? I’m not sure in practical terms how much we can do. Maybe this is in large part for our own mental health.”

Soon after the Seattle attack, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations put its Secure Community Network into action for the first time since it was created 18 months ago, sending out a bulletin to member organizations, urging them to implement pre-arranged security measures.

Those groups forwarded the alert to their constituents, including Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist houses of worship in North America.

Since last Friday, SCN’s national director, Paul Goldenberg, has been in contact with the heads of all 155 Jewish federations, Jewish camps and synagogue movements, and has been getting regular updates from the FBI and law enforcement around the country.

“I can assure you that this is not an overreaction,” said Goldenberg, who has 20 years of experience in law enforcement, including a stint as chief of the attorney general’s hate crime unit for New Jersey. “Almost every time there’s an escalation in the Middle East, there are attacks against Jewish communities in the United States and Europe.”

Malcolm Hoenlein, the Conference of Presidents’ executive vice chairman, said teleconferences were planned throughout the day Monday with groups that wanted to discuss security procedures.

The day before the Seattle attack, SCN organized a teleconference with heads of security for every major Jewish federation and senior representatives from eight law enforcement agencies to discuss concerns in the wake of the escalation of violence in Israel and Lebanon.

They specifically discussed the danger of a “lone wolf” attack, which is what happened the following day in Seattle.

“People may say it’s just one person, and I am not saying that Hezbollah or Al-Qaida are coming after Jewish institutions, but there are people out there influenced by what they see and hear, who act on it,” Goldenberg said. “It’s very difficult to track these people.”

In 1999, one such “lone wolf,” a white supremacist, shot and wounded seven people at the North Valley Jewish Community Center near Los Angeles. In 2002, an Egyptian terrorist shot and killed two workers at the El Al counter at Los Angeles International Airport.

Last month in Nashville, an Iraqi national was convicted of buying weapons “so he could shoot and kill Jews,” Goldenberg pointed out.

He emphasized, however, “there is no intelligence of any imminent threat,” and the Jewish community should “be vigilant” without panicking.

The SCN maintains a site;

“The most important weapon we have is education,” Goldenberg said. “The Jewish community needs to be training its professional staff in security awareness.”

Many such programs are free, and are offered by law enforcement agencies. The SCN can “help you navigate the process,” Goldenberg said.

Seattle was one of 18 cities that has received $14 million from the Department of Homeland Security’s 2005 budget to provide security for at-risk nonprofit groups. Virtually all the money is earmarked for enhanced security at Jewish organizations.

An additional $11 million from that budget, along with $25 million promised for 2006, has yet to be disbursed, and the 2007 budget is still being decided.

William Daroff, vice president for public policy at the United Jewish Communities and the group’s top Washington lobbyist, said that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff pledged three weeks ago to release the 2006 funds, but nothing has happened yet.

Daroff’s office also has asked for a $25 million increase to the 2007 budget, citing the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.

“What the Seattle murder brings home is exactly what I’ve been talking about,” he said. “It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to realize that Jewish institutions are front and center on terrorist lists.”

On Saturday, a synagogue in Sydney was attacked with concrete blocks being used to smash car windows, and other projectiles were hurled at the synagogue roof.

Some Jewish organizations already have spent some of their homeland security funding. Jewish day schools in Chicago, for example, installed materials on their windows to prevent shattered glass in case of a bombing.

The Atlanta Jewish federation has used its funding for what security director Richard Raisler calls “target hardening,” meaning physical security measures such as access control, cameras and other upgrades.

Other communities haven’t yet put the money to work, particularly those in the West, the last to submit their grant applications.

San Francisco’s JCC, for example, “has a plan in place to enhance security in the front of our building,” Rosenthal said, but it’s “still in the conceptual stage.”

Monday afternoon, the Orthodox Union urged its synagogues to create a standing “security committee” that would have “ready access to law enforcement and security contacts,” and to let their local police know the times of services and other planned gatherings.

Ultimately, there’s only so much that security barriers can accomplish.

“If we have to build walls around our JCCs and camps, then the people who want to harm us have succeeded,” Goldenberg said. “Creating a secure culture can be done in other ways — learning how to see threats and protecting against them.”

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