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Local, National Partnerships Make Community’s Alert Network Stronger

September 28, 2005
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In an effort to fortify its institutions against terrorist attacks, the U.S. Jewish community has added a security resource center, which law enforcement officials say could save lives and serve as a model for other American communities, to the rapid-warning service it launched last year. Partnering with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and state and local law enforcement agencies, the Secure Community Network, becoming known as SCN, works with a Tennessee-based communications company whose high-speed alert system allows SCN to quickly disseminate information on threats to its 55 member organizations, which in turn can warn their own constituent groups.

“The phrase that comes to my mind is ‘responsible self-reliance,’ ” said Steven Pomerantz, former chief of the FBI’s counterterrorism section and chairman of the SCN Law Enforcement Advisory Committee. “It’s not a uniformly shared threat.”

Over the past year, SCN, founded by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group, has initiated close working relationships with law enforcement agencies and has begun operating a full-time security monitoring center that is in continuous contact with these agencies nationwide and around the globe, officials say.

SCN also has teamed up with the Department of Homeland Security recently in a series of comprehensive security audits of more than 40 Jewish facilities nationwide, including synagogues, day schools, camps and homes for the aged.

The group also is working with the department to develop self-assessment tools that would enable organizations to determine some of their needs and vulnerabilities on their own. Homeland Security has given SCN a high-level designation facilitating notification and information exchanges between the groups.

SCN established the Law Enforcement Advisory Committee, comprising current and former high-ranking law-enforcement officials charged with crafting a response when warnings come in.

Most recently, SCN went online last week with its Web site, The site includes security recommendations ranging from policies on handling mail and threatening phone calls to sections on understanding the terrorist threat against the Jewish community and dealing with bomb threats. The site has links to other security sites.

SCN’s Web presence was initiated amid the typical security concerns that emerge in the run-up to the High Holidays and shortly after four Muslim prisoners in California were indicted on charges that they were plotting to attack Israeli, Jewish and military sites in California.

“Law enforcement can’t deal with the threat of terrorism alone,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference.

“We had an obligation in an era in which things are going to get worse before they get better,” he added. “No one has ever done this before. There are no prototypes, no models.”

SCN has a “written understanding” on security cooperation with Homeland Security and the New York Police Department, and an “oral understanding” with the FBI, its leaders say.

The group also has relationships with several other police departments and is encouraging communities to develop relationships with their local police.

Sidney Caspersen, director of the New Jersey Office of Counterterrorism and homeland security adviser to New Jersey’s governor, said his office has a “very, very, very close relationship” with SCN and its leadership.

“Every religious community could do a similar type of operation,” he told JTA. “And it doesn’t just have to be a religious community.”

“What you want to do when you produce an intelligence product like we do, you want a broad audience. You want to get it to as many people as possible,” Caspersen said. “This gives us the opportunity to take it all the way down to the synagogues and to the schools and get the information out rapidly.”

The alert system is intended not only to warn groups of potential risks but also to defuse spurious reports of threats. Last year, for example, reports that Jewish buildings in a specific part of the United States were potential terrorist targets were quickly exaggerated by rumor to include Jewish sites all over the country, said Stephen Hoffman, former UJC president and current president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland.

By the time community leaders were able to establish that the rumors were false and get word out to concerned groups, “it was way too late,” he said.

Some events were needlessly canceled because the rumors weren’t quashed earlier, Hoenlein said,

Once law enforcement determines that a particular threat is credible and warrants warning groups, the alert system can almost instantaneously send out warnings to e-mail addresses, pagers and telephone numbers. The national groups then can put out warnings to their member groups.

If a particular site is targeted, it would receive information beyond what comes through this system. If a specific region seems to be at risk, the system can be activated regionally.

Ultimately, SCN officials say, they hope the system will be able to dispatch warnings to a significantly larger number of groups.

As the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have demonstrated, security “is really incumbent upon communities,” said Paul Goldenberg, SCN’s national director, who was New Jersey’s first chief of the Office of Bias Crimes and Community Relations.

“There’s a 24- to 48-hour time period where communities will need to rely on themselves, and good planning could make the difference between life or death,” he said.

The annual cost of running the program is about $500,000, to be covered by both private donations and membership fees for each participating group. SCN is managed by a consortium of 10 Jewish organizations.

While local security agencies in the past have offered Jewish organizations aid in assessing their security needs, the Homeland Security audits — which SCN said represent the first time nationwide security audits were conducted for nonprofit groups — are of a different nature, participants say.

“Security audits, of which I have seen many and probably oversaw quite a few, they were based on good-old crime prevention,” looking to prevent purse snatching, stealing silver off Torahs and other such crimes, Goldenberg said. “It’s a much different issue when we’re talking about comprehensive terrorist audits.”

On Aug. 31, Homeland Security ran a “soft-target awareness training” seminar for synagogues in the Los Angeles area.

“There are 18,000 law enforcement agencies in this country,” some good, some less so, Pomerantz said. “To have the people from the Department of Homeland Security, where this particular expertise is well developed, is a major step forward.”

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