Monday, June 01, 2020

In advance of the Jewish High Holiday/Yom Tov season, Sheriff Anthony Cureton and Prosecutor Mark Musella held a briefing for local police chiefs, associated county, city and state emergency personnel and synagogue representatives on September 20 to explain readiness protocols for public safety, and address concerns and questions. While the event has been held each year for the past decade, this was the first time the briefing included synagogue representatives.

“We thought it was important to give local religious leaders an opportunity to bring community concerns to the attention of law enforcement and also learn about safety precautions that will be put in place during the busy Jewish High Holy season,” said Sheriff Cureton, an Englewood police veteran who was elected sheriff last November in a special election. He has been an outspoken advocate for religious communities, and in fact spoke memorably the previous year in support of the eruv in Mahwah, representing the NAACP.

The meeting focused on readiness. “While there is no current or specific threat, the Bergen County Sheriff’s Office plans on deploying extra patrols to synagogues, neighborhoods with higher Jewish populations and other potentially sensitive locations during the holy season. By the same token, it is also important for law enforcement to have a constant dialogue with faith communities, especially during times of high worship. It is crucial that residents feel Bergen County is a welcoming place for everyone and that starts with making sure everyone knows law enforcement is here to keep us all safe,” Cureton said.

This past year’s mass shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and at the Chabad of Poway were intense, shocking reminders of the importance of tight security in synagogues and religious institutions. Two questions from community members asked were about protocols for dealing with mass shootings, though New Jersey security officials said their focus was on preventing any such event by any means necessary, including but not limited to intensified local patrols, counter-terrorism monitoring and intensive cooperation among local, county, state and federal agencies to ensure community safety. However, there was a brief discussion of the “run, hide, fight” protocol should an incident occur, as well as questions as to what armed security personnel should do if encountering an initial threat.

The briefing was attended by representatives of Bergen County synagogues and personnel from police departments from many of the 70 towns that make up the county. The cornerstone of the event was an oversized calendar, color-coded and highlighted to identify the September holidays and describe and clarify high-traffic times to police personnel.

The calendar was developed by Rabbi Joel Friedman, chief chaplain and community liaison for the Bergen County Sheriff’s Office. As he went through the calendar with the group, Rabbi Friedman offered an overview of the most publicly visible traditions of the season, breaking down for police personnel what specific hours they should expect activity at synagogues on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah. Particularly helpful to personnel were Friedman’s detailed explanations of specific traditions, such as why residents will seek out a body of water for the tashlich ceremony, explaining that it is a prayer that Jewish people say beside a body of water during the first afternoon of Rosh Hashanah or later.

He also reminded that police should not expect Jewish residents to be carrying identification or phones while walking to or from synagogue and also explained that issues regarding hot plates or other electrical devices may arise during the two days during which Jews eschew turning electricity on or off. He also explained what the small huts used on Sukkot are and explained that people may be sleeping in them. His explanations were as sensitive as they were complete.

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal and County Executive James Tedesco were on hand to offer comments in support of the briefing and discussed the
importance of ensuring safety and security for all religious groups in the community.

New Jersey State Police Colonel Patrick Callahan shared that the county is prepared and ready for any potential physical threat, and has SWAT (special weapons and tactics) teams patrolling at the north and south ends of the county six days a week, so that any incident responded to by community police will be also backed up within moments by SWAT. “It’s not time to exchange business cards during some kind of incident. We have to depend on these ‘blue sky days’ to get to know each other in order to be prepared for anything that happens,” he said.

Also addressing the group were Bergen County Freeholder Vice-Chair Mary Amoroso, New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice Chief Weldon Powell and New Jersey Office of Homeland Security Chief of Staff Patrick Rigby.

Bergen County Prosecutor Mark Musella discussed his passion for preparedness in prevention of any kind of issue before it happens. “Today’s safety briefing was an opportunity to reassure the community that Bergen County law enforcement is proactive in preventing acts of violence while also being prepared to rapidly respond if necessary.”

“It is imperative that our residents feel safe when worshiping their chosen faiths, especially during major religious holidays,” said Bergen County Executive Tedesco. “With several Jewish high days of worship approaching, I commend Sheriff Cureton and Prosecutor Musella for bringing local law enforcement and religious leaders together today to talk about safety.”

By Elizabeth Kratz